Gossip in the Workplace: Why Does it Exist?

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“Did you hear about Ryan’s performance review?” Sally whispered to Dan.

“No,” Dan replied, curious. “What about it?”

“Well, I heard that…”

And there is the beginning of gossip.

Some define gossip as only spreading untruths about others. But the dictionary defines it also as “idle talk, especially about the affairs of others.”*  Some consider gossip talking about a person negatively with someone who is not part of the problem or the solution.  Whatever your definition, in the example above, what purpose does the conversation have? It doesn’t look like it’s headed in a productive direction, whether what is shared is true or not. The tone also doesn’t sound like the person is speaking to Dan to get wise input about solving a problem.

Gossip can be a rampant problem in organizations. Some organizations have a very strong policy against it, to the point of someone being  fired if caught participating. It can be a cancer that will ruin your team, but even the best people can get caught up in it. Why?

There are a few reasons why participating in gossip is the “easier choice” for people, even if, should you ask them if it is acceptable, they would say, “Of course not!”

Need for acceptance. It’s perhaps counter intuitive that gossip can cause someone to feel accepted, because after all, gossip by nature alienates another person. But for those doing the gossiping, there is some satisfaction in knowing that someone else sees a situation or another person the same way or has experienced the same problems with them.

In the illustration above, if several coworkers have problems getting along with Ryan, they may unite in the gossip about his review.

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Desire for information. Gossip can arise when there are holes in communication or a feeling of “We’re not being told the whole truth.” People will start to fill in holes by brainstorming possibilities, and we all know where that can lead. False conclusions or imaginary scenarios become “fact” as more people hear about them.  

“Ryan sure looked troubled when he left Mr. Supervisor’s office. I’m sure the company must be considering layoffs, and Ryan is the first.”

[callout]The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts. [biblegateway passage=”Proverbs 18:8″][/callout]

Feeling of inadequacy. Though we don’t like to admit it, deep down many of us are fully aware of what we believe are inadequacies or weaknesses. When we hear about the alleged behavior of someone, we feel a little better when we think, “I would never have done that!” If someone concurs by mentioning the same thing, we feel particularly validated in our own sense of right and wrong. 

“I hope they brought up his frequent lateness. I would never clock in 30 minutes late every day.”

The reasons given above do not justify gossip, nor am I suggesting you should simply tolerate it. However, it is wise to consider the “why” behind behavior. What is going on in people’s minds and hearts that leads them to speak ill of co-workers or the organization? This can be a first step in helping you develop a more effective way to deal with the behavior.

*gossip. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc.http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/gossip (accessed: August 15, 2014).

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