Juicy Gossip.

Posted by jlubans on January 25, 2016

Caption: Stern Soviet message: "Don't chatter! Gossiping borders on treason" (1941).

Frank T. McAndrew states in a recent edition of The Conversation, “Gossip is a social skill – not a character flaw”.
I always thought gossip was something to avoid; a meddlesome, backstabbing kind of thing. So, when I saw that headline, I took notice.
Reading his essay, I noted that some other researchers also think that gossip does more good than bad and that it is something we are seemingly hard wired to do. It’s in our DNA and helps us survive, in our personal and corporate lives.
In my experience, there appear to be three types of gossip: idle, malicious and useful. For the latter, I recall the “Pincher” from the earliest days of my career. He was a middle-aged manager with a penchant for pinching women in elevators; in those days he did so with impunity. It was through gossip that women learned never to get on an elevator with the Pincher.
Also in the utilitarian line, I recall a leader in my professional association who seemed to know everyone. Whenever I had lunch with her at a conference, she’d “dish” and I would come away with career planning information about job openings, who was leaving, when they were leaving and why. She did not lie nor seem to get any visible jollies from sharing the information. Obviously, she had an extensive network and was willing to pass on information to people she liked and wanted to see advance. She appeared to practice McAndrew’s conclusion about gossip: “Successful gossiping entails being a good team player and sharing key information with others in ways that won’t be perceived as self-serving. It’s about knowing when it’s appropriate to talk, and when it’s probably best to keep your mouth shut.”
A quick search brought up a couple other articles that claim gossip might be more good than bad. For a gossipy, “juicy” read, see “Psst, have you heard that gossip is good for us?” by Lucy Kellaway.
Of interest for team builders, McAndrew cites an essay
about the effect of gossip in a rowing team and how word of mouth was used effectively to get rid of a “social loafer whose relatively inferior commitment to the squad impeded the rest of the group’s success.” The researchers considered this an example of how gossip identifies a group’s takers vs. the givers and how a group responds to the egregious “taker”. Surprisingly (for a men’s sports team), no one confronted the loafer’s behavior and candidly told the person to get with it or get out; it was all done subversively, a classic example of conflict avoidance. That suggests a weak team since it appears afraid to get anywhere near the “storming” dynamic, that crucial phase of group development when doubts, anxieties, and fears are candidly and openly discussed. Absent this honest discussion, the group will not do as well as it could.
As a more effective model of constructive conflict resolution, the researchers cite the role of gossip among cattle ranchers. Gossip precipitates face-to-face discussion when one herd persistently stray’s onto another rancher’s property. The gossip triggers the discussion and settlement of differences face to face, never in a court of law.
While I have spent little time on the idle and malicious varieties of gossip, it probably goes without saying, that that kind of gossip should be avoided; it does more harm than good for all involved.
So, if much of your day at work is spent in idle gossip, guess what? You've plateaued and it is time to move on. And, if you find yourself becoming a backstabber and admiring Lady Macbeth, what should you do? Depends on who you want to be.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016
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