9 October 2018 • HNTB, Martine de Wit
Think of gossip as inevitable and use it
Gossip has a very bad reputation. Just google the word ‘gossip’ and you will find many ways to avoid gossip in your organisation. But actually gossip has quite an important role in the workplace, says Dominique Darmon, our Senior Lecturer of International Communication Management and member of the research group Change Management. We asked her: how can we use whispers through the grapevine to our advantage rather than to our detriment?
Some people proudly go around saying they don’t gossip. However, according to Dominique, that’s not very smart. “If you spend some time around the coffee machine, you’ll learn a lot about the unwritten company rules”, she explains. “For instance: when you hear two co-workers got fired for having a relationship, you’ll think twice when an interesting colleague flirts with you. It’s not all about the juicy details, there are actual lessons to be learned about the company culture.”
So this is from an employee’s point of view. But how about from a manager’s perspective? Dominique: “Many managers are afraid of gossip. I noticed that myself when I was doing research on the topic. By the title of my report – From fly on the wall to fly in the soup – you can tell things were challenging … It already starts with the definition of gossip. The neutral, academic definition of gossip is: people talking positively or negatively about an absent third party. But most people tend to leave out the possibility of positive gossip and only think of workplace bullying. Studies show that managers quickly feel threatened when employees hang out at the water cooler, even when the content of their gossip is positive.”
Since managers themselves are quite a popular subject of tittle-tattle, isn’t it understandable that gossip makes them nervous? “True”, Dominque admits. “But rather than installing a no-gossip policy or suchlike, think of gossip as inevitable. And … use it! Too often managers lock themselves up in their offices and rely on reports, emails and statistics. But if things are off in your company or your leadership, the best way to find out is to step into the hallway and talk to people. Get involved, experience different points of view. Henry Mintzberg wrote an interesting book on this: Managing scrambled eggs. His message is: know what’s going on in your company. And gossip is a perfect source. For instance, as a manager, you can find out from hearsay that an employee is having trouble at home. If their results start to fall short, you know why and can show some understanding.”
Master the art of gossiping
So, becoming a gossiper could actually be to your advantage. How do you go about doing this? “Well, there is a tender point”, Dominique warns. “It’s all about trust. If you never gossip, people don’t tend to trust you. However, if you gossip all the time, they also won’t. You have to show interest and share enough useful information, but you shouldn’t overdo it. The content of the gossip is crucial too. If you say the wrong things, people are also unlikely to trust you. Culture plays a huge role in this. For example, it is acceptable in the Netherlands to gossip about the professional performance of another colleague, but talking about their physical appearance rarely happens. In France however, this is far more easily accepted. You can only imagine how much trouble a new French co-worker could get into when arriving in The Netherlands! There’s a lot more to explore when it comes to the role of culture in gossip. In fact, it’s the subject of my follow up research study: An Intercultural analysis of gossip.”
If you spend some time around the coffee machine, you’ll learn a lot about the unwritten company rules.