Positive Effects of Gossip

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Abstract

Gaining an understanding of the construct of gossip is crucial in supporting its timely and appropriate management in the workplace. This review provides a summary of the current literature dedicated to the study of gossip, and is conducted from the perspective of Industrial-Organizational Psychology. This work explores an emerging body of evidences suggesting that contrary to the common belief that all gossips are deleterious, gossiping may serve positive organizational functions.

Keywords: gossip, Industrial-Organizational Psychology, Psychology

Introduction

Although gossiping is a common and pervasive human and organizational phenomenon, the construct itself is not necessarily well understood (Michelson, 2010; Mills, 2010; Noon, 1993). The objective of this report is to conduct a critical analysis of the studies on gossiping in psychology, with an emphasis on Industrial-Organizational (I-O) Psychology. This work aims at delivering an unambiguous state of the literature surrounding the construct of gossip, its definitions, its attributes, its purposes and impact on the organization. This analysis fosters a multi-disciplinary approach to review the concept of gossip, and draws from the research findings of evolutionary psychologists, sports psychologists, as well as the recent literature of I-O Psychology.

The concept of gossip has received substantial attention from I-O Psychologists across the years, yet despite the burgeoning literature, misconceptions remain frequent (Michelson, 2010). Contrary to the common belief that gossiping is inherently detrimental to the firm, a growing body of evidence suggests that gossip may have positive organizational outcomes (Feinberg, 2012). This analysis will challenge the common belief that “all gossips are bad” by detailing a variety of organizational functions positively impacted by gossip.

Gossip cannot be uprooted or easily terminated, and too many managers simply attempt to repress gossip rather than manage the flow of information. Thus, a better understanding of the academic research surrounding the concept of gossip will assist organizational leaders as well as I-O Psychology practitioners in their management of gossip in the workplace and in the development of policies aiming at both controlling it and perhaps harnessing its benefits. As more is learnt regarding the nature and typology of gossip, managers and practitioners will profit from an environment where positive gossip is encouraged while negative gossip is repressed.

Origin of the word gossip: a semantic analysis and evolutionary perspective

Valuable insights can be gained from reviewing the origin of the word “gossip”. Gossip was initially known as godssib and was used as early as the 12th century. The word is the union of two Anglo-Saxons nouns:  god (god) and sib (the kinsman or the relative), for what would become the “godparent” or the “siblings”. Hence the godssib was the person spiritually related to another, by a sacred act, such as baptism. By the 1300’s, the term was extended to include a familiar acquaintance, a neighbor, or a friend (Merriam-Webster, 2017). Godssibs included the feminine entourage invited to attend the birth of the child, an event where idle talks were most likely common. Importantly, there was an absence of negative connotations associated with the word godssib. Godssib simply denoted an exchange of information: a form of communication which took place in the context of intimate friendship and resulted in the creation of social attachments under the watchful eye of God. It is noteworthy that the word godssib was not yet laden with assumptions of positivity or negativity; the word itself was free of any moral bias.

Several hundred years later, the meaning outgrew its original definition and in doing so underwent a profound transformation. While the pure oral attribute has remained, gossip was now associated with “negative evaluative talk” or “rumor mongering”. The notion that gossiping is systematically detrimental to an organization is embedded within this concept to such an extent that many authors continue to conceptualize and treat gossip as a deleterious psychological phenomenon which must be eliminated at all cost (Sitzman, 2006). This pervasive, judgmental, and evaluative dimension of gossip persists today.

The historical perspective can inform the contemporary research on gossip as a positive medium of communication. The original concept of intimacy, intrinsically linked to the word gossip, is emphasized in the recent literature surrounding the concept. The notions of interpersonal relationship development and medium of exchange have experienced a revival in the recent academic research devoted to the study of gossip (Ferrari, 2015).

Gossip is far from being an invention of modern societies and organizations. From an evolutionary perspective, evidence suggests that early humans gossiped because gossiping played a crucial role in maintaining social groups by fostering cohesion and policing deviant behavior. Several authors have noted the similarities which exist between the environment in which ancient human societies were formed and shaped and the contemporary workplace dynamic (Yang, 2014; Dunbar, 1998). Communication and gossip appear as two founding factors of inter-personal relationship development. Multiple recent publications are dedicated to studying the benefits of gossip in organizations.

Definitions & typology

There is a fine line between informal communication and gossip, and not all researchers agree on a definition of the concept of gossip. Numerous definitions have been proposed, from harmless idle talk between two or more persons, to an objectively or tacitly judgmental exchange of information. As such, it has proven a difficult concept to capture. Grosser (2012) defines gossip as “evaluative talk between two or more persons about a third party that is absent from the conversation.” In Grosser’s definition, the term “evaluative” is to be understood as judgmental. Building on tens of individual’s interviews, Grosser and colleagues provided a precise definition of gossip: the spreading of information between two or more people about a situation or person they may or may not know, behind their back, regarding information that is of no relevance to them. The content of the message is not for public consumption and the disclosure of the information leads to undesirable circumstances such as fueled speculation, false impressions and the breakdown of trust (p. 53). Built on laypersons’ interviews, we see how Grosser’s definition captures the popular belief that gossip is fundamentally associated with evaluative talk. Grosser’s characterization of gossip is echoed by Eder and Enke’s (1991) that defines gossip as “evaluative talk about a person who is not present.” Here again, the assumption that gossip is inherently judgmental is salient. Handelman’s (1973) studies of gossip use the word “gossip” and “information” interchangeably. Handelman’s paper argues that judgmental gossip is  only one of many forms of gossip and that gossip should be defined without any a priori preconceptions regarding the inherent nature of the information being passed. Handelman’s definition of gossip is one of “informal communications passed about persons, through the medium of encounters, which if accomplished will be deemed by members of the setting to be of interest and value.” The plurality of available definitions is a testament to the fact that the concept of gossip does not lend itself to a simple characterization. Disagreements remain between scholars about the scope and limit of the construct.

While there exists substantial overlap between the concept of rumor and the concept of gossip, they are not the same constructs. Here again a precise and univocal definition of rumor seems to be missing, which makes the delineation of the constructs of gossip and rumor challenging. The difference between gossip and rumor seems to reside in the source of the information being conveyed. David Coady (2012), a professor of philosophy at the University of Tasmania, Australia, applied epistemology to the construct of rumor and gossip. His understanding of the differences between the two constructs is often referenced in peer-reviewed literature dedicated to the subject. In Coady’s words: this is one difference between rumor and another form of communication with which it is often confused: gossip. Gossip may well be first-hand. By contrast, no first-hand account of an event can be a rumor, though it may later become one (p. 12). Our working hypothesis for conducting this literature review relies on the assumption that the two constructs are clearly labeled in the literature. Thus, this analysis excludes all peer-reviewed journals dedicated solely to the study of rumor.

A critical analysis of gossip in the workplace should start with conceptual clarity, and as such a review of the different typologies of gossip is needed. Kurland (2000) developed a typology of gossips around three criteria: “the sign”: whether the message being conveyed is intrinsically positive or negative; “the credibility”: how trustworthy the information contained in the gossip is, and “the work-relatedness”: the differentiation between work-related and non-work-related gossip.

Working with data collected from structured interviews, Gouveia (2005) developed the most thorough typology of gossip in the workplace to date. Gouveia’s conceptual framework starts with the dichotomy of gossip as either “harmful” or “harmless”, a precursor to the concept of “good gossip” versus “bad gossip”. “Good gossips” are further subdivided into “information that could be found in the public domain”, “situations that are part of life”, “the need to know the information” and finally “the day-to-day venting and tattletaling”. Gouveia’s research on gossip typology relies exclusively on conducting 25 structured interviews, a rather small sampling population that raises questions as to whether a truly diverse audience was effectively surveyed. Future research could benefit from an enlarged sampling population to verify whether Gouveia’s findings remain unchanged.

Interestingly, both Gouveia’s and Kurland’s conceptual frameworks rely heavily on the intent (harmful or harmless) as one of their main criteria for differentiating between gossip types.

Gossip: a decidedly negative perception

Depictions of gossip as malicious behavior or sinful conduct are found in various religious texts. The bible states: “The godless man uses his mouth to destroy his neighbor but the virtuous use their wisdom to save themselves. Gossip reveals secrets, but the trustworthy man keeps a secret.” (Proverbs 11: 9, 13). The Torah, the sacred text of the Jews, prohibits gossips: “‘Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people.” (Leviticus 19:16). Conducting research on the typology of gossip, Gouveia et al. found that the prevailing opinion among participants was that gossip was destructive, particularly so in the demoralization of employees. The negative connotation of gossip is illustrated by the prevailing assumption that it results in negative ramifications for the organization and is symptomatic of underperformance.

Mitra (2012) conducted an emotional content analysis of the Enron email corpus, a collection of 517,431 messages sent by Enron’s employees over the course of 5 years, partitioning each email considered as gossip into positive, negative or neutral. Mitra’s analysis demonstrated that negative gossips were 2.7 times more prevalent than positive gossips. As negativity is more frequently associated with gossiping, it may contribute to the perception of gossip as a negative phenomenon of deleterious consequences for the organization.

The benefits of gossip

Several studies at various organizational levels and across many disciplines have highlighted the positive character of gossip and refuted the common perception that all gossips are detrimental to the organization. The Scientific American Mind, a popular magazine published by the prestigious Nature Publishing Group, dedicated an article to the subject of gossip titled “can gossip be good?” and characterizing gossip as a multi-layered and complex construct with positive facets that remain poorly understood (McAndrew, 2008).

Gossip as an efficient medium of communication

Modern organizations thrive on communication. Yet how often do organizational leaders dispense timely information to their employees regarding the state of the company’s affairs? The quarterly newsletter or occasional official HR blog does very little to quench the thirst for instantaneous information, leaving the demand for information in the workplace unsatisfied. Gossiping is a mode of communication, sometimes called the rumor mill or the “grapevine”, that is neither sanctioned nor officially forbidden by the organization’s code of conduct. Prior to designing mechanisms aiming at controlling gossip, managers must understand the reason for its very existence.

Burke (2003) and colleagues report that employees perceive the grapevine as a more elaborate, reliable, up to date and efficient source of information than official communications. Crampton (1998) and colleagues reported that as much as 70% of all communication taking place in a company is carried out through unofficial channels.

Davis (1973) and colleagues demonstrated that more than three quarter of the information conveyed through gossip was true. The communication of reliable, and verifiable information via gossip fills the knowledge gap within the institution. Gossip becomes an efficient medium of diffusing information about what is known but is yet to be announced.

The notion that gossiping can constitute an efficient form a communication is reverberated in the field of computer network engineering. In computer sciences, a “gossip protocol” also referred to as “gossip communication”, relies on periodic exchanges between network node pairs, which eventually leads to the information being disseminated throughout the entire network system. The name “gossip protocol” was first coined by Alan Demers, at Cornell University, in his seminal work on network communication, a clear analogy to the spreading of information taking place in human societies. Interestingly, gossip protocols have proven highly reliable and efficient in network communication.

Gossip fosters the development of interpersonal relationships

An evolutionary perspective on the development of gossip is of interest to our discussion. Evolutionary scientists rely on the principles of evolution and biology to develop a comprehensive framework of human behavior, including group dynamics. Hundreds of years of evolution have shaped the social standards of individuals living in communities. Researchers have suggested that the workings of the modern firm closely resemble the functioning of the communities several hundred years ago. A plausible explanation for the existence of gossip is to consider it as a heritage of our past, brought to the modern workplace by pure evolutionary social pressure. As early as the middle age, ostracism, the banishing of an individual from the community, was a form of punishment used for aggravated fault, with death of the individual as the likely outcome. Similarly, in the workplace, the exclusion of a person from gossip is a form of ostracism, whereupon communication is severed, with the objective of isolating the subject from the group.

In this vein, several researchers have hypothesized that gossip acts as social glue that helps in the strengthening of social relations in the work place.

Grosser et al. (2012) used structured interviews and network analysis to study the relationship between gossip and the development of individuals’ relationship at a mid-size company in the United States. Their results suggest that friendship ties between workers are positively related to engaging in gossiping behaviors. The results remained unchanged whether the gossip could be categorized as positive gossip or negative gossip.

There is evidence that gossip fosters the development of tight relationships between individuals. Research conducted by Ellwardt (2012) within non-profit organizations, suggests that gossip between female pedagogic professionals increases the likelihood of these individuals developing friendship over the years. Ellwardt’s research results are corroborated by Thomas’ findings in healthcare settings. Thomas et al. (2007) studied the role of gossip in nurse’s units and concluded that when managed properly, gossip positively impacted the workplace by solidifying social bonds within the nursing units.

Feinberg et al. (2014) studied the role gossip played in fostering team-work and facilitating partner selection. Their results revealed that workers readily spread information regarding other individuals’ work ethics, skills and capabilities, and that recipients used that knowledge to make an informed decision about whom to select for team-work. Additionally, recipients of the information selectively used their knowledge of an individual’s poor performance to ostracize that individual and remove him or her from the team selection.

Sally Farley (2011), a researcher at the University of Baltimore, offers a different view of gossip. Farley’s study of 128 students suggests that high frequency gossipers are perceived as less likeable by their peers than low-frequency gossipers. Additionally, students resorting to negative gossips were deemed less likeable than those resorting to positive gossip. Farley’s findings undermine the value of gossip as a powerful and far-reaching social enticer that helps bond individuals together. Farley’s research protocol assesses how individuals are perceived by the entire group, but does not differentiate utilizing within-groups effects. The workplace is a complex organization of groups, cliques and inner circles.  It may be that the gossiping individuals are perceived as less likeable when the entire firm is considered, and more likeable when the clique is used as the unit of analysis.

While gossiping has been shown to contribute to the development of inter-personal relationships, several research examples have shown how gossip may be used to target, ostracize and exclude a particular individual from the group. In “weaponized gossip”, Karen Adkins (2017) explores the role of gossip as a tool to compromise trust, divide communities into insular groups, through power and social divisions. This avenue of research both in the creation of “weapons” and the defense against them, offers much possibility but is not in the purview of this paper.

Gossip protects the workers against stress

Gossiping provides an adjustment time when a dreaded announcement is pending. In the workplace where an absence of information leads to increased uncertainty and stress as the employees are left wondering what may happen, gossip appears as a collective sense-making mechanism. Under these circumstances, gossip plays the role of a social buffer, assisting the employees in alleviating the stress stemming from a perceived organizational threat (Waddington, 2007).

The issue of stress and stress management in nursing and healthcare organizations has been extensively researched. Professional nurses, by the very nature of their work environment, are frequently exposed to a wide range of workplace stressors, including workload, uncertainty regarding the proper choice of treatment and having to deal with patient’s death. In a study published in the Journal of Health Organization and Management, Waddington and Fletcher (2005) examined the relationship between emotions in the nursing profession and gossip. Drawing on information collected from 96 nurses working in diverse practice areas, Waddington and Fletcher concluded that nurses resorted to gossip to externalize various emotions including concern about others, anger, annoyance and anxiety. The nurses report finding solace in practicing gossip, and a willingness “to be seen” and not “hide behind the mask of professionalism”. Conducted in 4 hospitals in Turkey, Altuntas et al. (2014) determined that nurses use gossip at a higher rate when feeling angry.

Concluding that gossip systematically lowers stress in organizations would be an overoptimistic image. For instance, the fact that gossip has been shown to successfully alleviate stress in nursing units does not necessarily imply that gossip cannot be willingly and purposively used to cause stress.

Laura Crothers’s (2009) study of relational aggression in the workplace provides such an example of gossip as a tool to intentionally cause stress. Relational aggression, is defined as a range of behaviors aiming at destabilizing and damaging someone’s relationship or social standing. In “Cliques, Rumors, and Gossip by the Water Cooler: Female Bullying in the Workplace” Crothers points out that gossip is frequently used as a mean of inflicting relational aggression, causing the recipient a substantial amount of stress. Crother’s review offers a contrasting view of the construct of gossip, by arguing that in certain occasions, gossip increases rather than decreases organizational stress.

It is noteworthy that other authors have found no support for the hypothesis that a significant relationship exists between frequency of gossip and perceived stress (Marshall, 2015).

Gossip provides a distraction from boredom

The detrimental effect of routine work and boredom on employee’s performance and organizational outcomes is a well-documented phenomenon. Melamed et al. (1995) investigated the relationship between work monotony and behavioral outcomes in 1,278 male and female blue-collar workers. Using hierarchical regression analysis, they demonstrated the existence of a negative relationship between work monotony, employee’s report of psychological distress, leave of absence caused by sickness and job satisfaction.

Bruursema (2011) and colleagues studied the link between job boredom and counterproductive work behaviors (CWB). Their results demonstrated a clear relationship between CWB and propensity of the work conditions to induce a state of boredom.  Physiological studies on repetitive work conditions found a positive relationship between monotony and coronary heart disease, characterized by higher blood pressure in both men and women (Ben-Avi, 1995). However, a different review published in the American Psychosomatic Society found no evidence for the belief that monotony elicited stress (Thackray, 1981).

When employees feel bored, they naturally seek ways to enhance their stimulation. Gossip may constitute an escape from the doldrums of the day to day work and act to improve the employee’s well-being and engagement by lowering monotony. If boredom is detrimental to the individual’s health, as some studies seem to suggest, gossip could constitute a self-protective mechanism.

Taylor and Bain, two UK researchers, studied the behavior of workers at two call centers during their period of inactivity. They uncovered that when call volumes would drop, workers at the call centers would resort to gossiping to fill the time. Satirical banters, critique of management and mockery were often the subject of the gossip. Taylor and Bain established that gossip was motivated by a need to escape the day to day boredom and seek relief from frustrating repetitive tasks. The strategic value of gossip as a relief mechanism to boredom was acknowledged by the workers (Taylor, 2003). Thus, Taylor and Bain view gossip as a possible solution to boredom. Their framework differs from Spector and Fox’s that conducted similar research at approximatively the same time.

Spector and Fox investigated the boredom coping strategies of workers and broadly classified them into 2 categories. Strategies aiming at alleviating boredom that positively impact the organization’s functioning such as taking additional responsibilities and seeking training opportunities belonged to the first category.  Strategies aiming at alleviating boredom that negatively impacted the organization, such as horseplay and non-work related web surfing, belonged to the second category. Spector and Fox classified gossip as belonging to the second category of strategies, arguing that while gossip did act to reduce boredom, gossiping disrupted the work process, therefore negatively impacting the firm’s efficiency (Spector, 2010).

Spector and Fox’s results are not necessarily inconsistent with Taylor and Bain’s conclusions. It may be that infrequent and short span of time used to gossip do improve worker’s efficiency by eliminating boredom while extended periods of gossip constitute a counterproductive behavior by significantly disrupting productivity.

Gossip as a mechanism to control deviant behaviors

Kevin Kniffin, an honorary fellow of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s department of anthropology and David Wilson, a professor of biological sciences and anthropology at SUNY-Binghamton, observed competitive rowing teams over 18 months and in doing so, uncovered a subtle purpose of gossip (Kniffin & Willson, 2005). Strictly speaking, the research of Kniffin and Wilson belongs to the field of sports psychology. It is noteworthy that rowing requires all athletes to be coordinated, balanced and in synch. The pre-requisite for performance is a complete alignment of individual interest with the team’s interest so that rowing is considered as the quintessential team sport. As such the observations of Kniffin and Wilson are far reaching and applicable to the field of I-O Psychology, where in modern companies the need to work as a team is increasingly frequent.

Kniffin and Wilson identified “the slacker” as one of the rowing team members whose contribution was objectively lower relative to his teammates. His repetitive skipping of the training sessions paused a threat to the performance of the entire team. Kniffin and Wilson’s observations showed that negative gossips were being directed toward the slacking athlete. That particular individual was perceived by the group as having violated the group-beneficial norms. The observations of Kniffin and Wilson also demonstrated that while negative gossips were being directed at the slacking individual, positive gossips were being directed at individuals whose behaviors favored the team performance.

Kniffin and Wilson’s research highlights the significant role of gossip in policing deviant behavior while rewarding behavior deemed beneficial to the group. Their case study of rowing athletes suggests that both negative and positive gossip can be used to encourage group-serving behaviors.  Although the rowing example belongs to the domain of sports psychology, the results of Kniffin and Wilson’s observations are immensely insightful to the I-O Psychologist looking to better understand the role of gossip in work teams. While additional research is needed to translate their findings to the workplace, their work supports the role of gossip as a mechanism for rewarding, or chastising, individual’s behavior, so that the performance of the group can be maximized.

Knez and Simester (2011) developed a similar theory of gossip as a mechanism for policing behavior while studying airport employees at Continental Airlines. Their research, conducted entirely in the work place, provides valuable insights to the I-O Psychologist looking to advance his or her understanding of gossip and to the practitioner in search of management efficiency. It is noteworthy that the duo Simester, from the private consulting firm Lexecon Strategy Group, and Knez, at the time a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, perfectly embody the quintessential scientist-practitioner approach to studying human behavior. In February 1995, Continental Airlines transitioned its 35,000 employees to an incentive plan based on team achievement. The new plan changed the employees’ behavior significantly. Every employee had an interest in ensuring his co-workers’ effort and commitment were aligned with the team objectives. Gossip was used to encourage compliance.  In observing Continental Airlines’ employees during the transition, Knez and Simester concluded that the knowledge that employees will resort to gossip to discuss inappropriate behavior led to increased compliance. Knez and Simester research demonstrates that gossip can effectively be used to disseminate knowledge of poor performance, and similar to Kniffin and Wilson’s conclusions, serves to maximize the group’s overall efficiency. Knez and Simester’s research highlights the transactional relationship that exists between the worker and his environment, one of the fundamental underpinning of the field of organizational psychology.

Knez’s and Simester’s results are corroborated by Feinberg and Beersma. In “gossip as an effective and low-cost form of punishment”, Feinberg and colleagues (2012) show how gossip serves as a cost-effective mechanism to punish individuals involved in transgression behaviors, foster social order and favor team cooperation. Beersma’s study of 147 undergraduate students at a large university in the Netherlands, adds to the growing body of literature regarding the role of gossip as regulator of social deviance. Her results, published in an article titled “how the grapevine keeps you in line” support the findings of Feinberg’s that gossip is a powerful mechanism to limit self-serving behaviors (Beersma, 2011).

In the Knez and Simester scenario, the introduction of a compensation plan based on team performance is believed to have introduced a solid interdependence between workers at Continental Airlines and thus the need for policing deviant behavior that jeopardize the group’s achievements. Additional research is needed to unveil whether the prevalence of gossip increases in organizations whose compensation structure prioritize the group over the individual worker. Additional research is also needed to assess the costs and limitations associated with gossip as a mechanism to foster group-serving behaviors. A possible method of investigation would consist in selecting companies on the verge of transitioning from an individual centric compensation plan to a group centric reward scheme, and test for increased gossip following the transition.

In Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, anthropologist Christopher Boehm (2001) explores a subtle variation on the role of gossip, not as a buffer against deviant behavior, but rather as a “leveling mechanism” for neutralizing the tendencies and aspirations of overly dominant individuals.

A significant number of authors have argued that gossip can be used to encourage group-serving behavior, chastise deviant behavior, and in doing so, ensure a superior performance of the group. Anne Campbell (2004), a researcher at the psychology department of Durham University offers a different perspective on gossip, one that does not in any way maximizes the group performance. Campbell’s research suggests that gossip can serve as an indirect tactic of denigrating rivals, particularly talented employees that pause a threat to one’s promotion and access to a higher position within the company. Thus, gossip is used to spread damaging information to the other’s reputation and lower his or her standing within the company and chances of career advancement. As a result of gossip, talented individuals may be eliminated from accessing positions of power. Unable to benefit from these employee’s contribution, the firm suffers.

Nancy Kurland and Lisa Hope Pelled developed a conceptual framework of the benefits derived by gossipers. In a work environment, the use of negative gossip enhances the gossiper’s coercive power over the other employees (Kurland, 2000). The coercive power may be used to advance the initiator’s own agenda, even in cases where this agenda does not favor the group. It would appear that gossip as a means of fostering group-benefitting behaviors has its limits.

The dark triad, is a section of psychological sciences concerned with the study of 3 personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Studies by Minna Lyons and Sara Hughes, at the University of Liverpool, investigated the relationship between the Dark Triad and the motivation to gossip. Using an online survey method, their findings suggest that traits of psychopathy and narcissism were positively correlated to various motivations for gossiping, including a desire for social bonding and group protection. Lyon’s (2015) research suggests that for these personality traits, gossip may be used as a form of social influence strategy.

When the organization’s behavior is perceived as deviant, employees may resort to gossiping as a form of retaliation. Borgia and colleagues’ studies of retail workers from the metropolitan region of a large city in eastern Australia explored a darker side of gossip, one motivated by the need for revenge and retaliation against the organization. Their research findings stand in stark contrast to the results of the various authors cited previously, where gossip was used to police the deviant behavior of one individual (Bordia, 2014).

Using the hypothetical vignettes method, Bordia and colleagues developed a series of scenarios where a hypothetical company failed to deliver on its promises to provide its employees’ a commission-based pay and job security. Participants were asked to review the scenarios and fill out a survey assessing their motivation for revenge. Bordia’s results show that the participants who perceived a psychological contract breach were more willing to engage in negative gossip about the organization. If the breach of contract was perceived as significant enough, the employees were more likely to seek revenge on the organization by engaging in gossips, even in cases where the gossips were explicitly detrimental to the organization. A limitation of Bordia’s research is that their surveys only demonstrate the intent to act.

Bordia’s results indicate that employees are willing to use gossiping as a mean to inflict damage to the organization, when the organization’s behavior is perceived as deviant or unfair. The concept of negative reciprocity seen in Bordia’s research is reminiscent of the behavior observed in Kniffin and Wislon’s and Knez and Simester’s work. In Bordia’s scenario however, the use of gossip is harmful to the entire organization.

Implications for I-O Psychologists practitioners

The recent findings of numerous scholars will prove invaluable to the researchers attempting to advance our knowledge of what gossip truly is, and to the I-O Psychology practitioners aiming at improving the wellbeing of employees in the workplace, and the performance of the organization. To our knowledge no reviews or research have addressed the strategic value of harnessing positive gossip in the workplace. In a memo, Mary Abbajay (2004), a senior partner in the Careerstone Group, a Washington based consulting company, warns her customers about the danger of gossip, and details various technics that can be used to derail and terminate gossip in organizations. Destructive gossip, or gossip that negatively impacts the organization should be dealt with. Yet, the present literature review suggests that organizational leaders can benefit from a more discerning approach than the systematic eradication of gossip. In step 1, managers are invited to acquire an understanding of whether gossip improves or damages the firm’s performance, perhaps using Gouveia’s and Kurland’s conceptual frameworks. If gossiping is not harmful to the organization, or if gossiping positively improves the firm’s performance, then there may be no need to police or repress it, and no special resolution is warranted. If a manager establishes that gossiping helps her employees alleviate stress, as seems to be the case in nursing professions, should she actively repress gossip? In theory, the rational manager will want to sanction and even encourage gossiping in this case, as long as gossiping is proven to improve organizational outcomes. Could the benefits of gossip reside in it being effectively a tool to improve the workplace?  Could a pro-active management, or even a pro-active encouragement of gossip in the work place have positive consequences for the firm? These last 2 questions, however bold they may seem, may be a source of inspiration for future research in I-O Psychology.

Conclusion

The present literature review challenges the mainstream belief that gossip systematically represents a malicious and therefore reprehensible organizational behavior.  Recent research results, taken from various sub-fields of psychology, highlight the need to reframe the construct of gossip as an inherent phenomenon of the workplace, a widespread human habit with potential organizational benefits to the firm, if properly understood and managed. Gossiping plays several different roles within the organization, including the maintenance of socially functional groups, the development of inter-personal relationships, the efficient spreading of information, the relief and diffusion of organizational stress, the distraction from boredom, and finally a mechanism to protect the group and the firm against the detriments of deviant behaviors.

Since some gossip will be negative it is essential for the I-O Psychologist or manager to have a means for evaluating current gossip with the intent of favoring positive gossip and minimizing or even eliminating negative gossip. Perhaps the appropriate software for this endeavor will soon be developed.

This review will help the I-O Psychologist researcher and practitioner, acquire a better understanding of the construct of gossip as well as explore its strategic function in the work context.

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