More than a few times in your career, I’m sure you’ve walked by the watercooler and witnessed two folks talking in a whisper. Were you to assume the participants were engaging in some gossip (hopefully not about you), you’d probably be right. We all know gossip is one of the most popular of sports—one most of us have engaged in at some point in our working life (perhaps more times than we’d like to admit).
Gossip, typically, is seen as something that’s unhealthy and counterproductive—and therefore something that should be discouraged. (Remember, no one likes a gossip, right?) But I recently ran across a just-released study (published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin) suggesting that being on the receiving end of gossip can actually be beneficial, helping individuals adapt to their social environments, illustrating how they can improve or revealing potential threats.
To reach these conclusions, the researchers at the University of Groningen (in the Netherlands) conducted two studies. In one, they asked participants to recall an incident in which they received either positive or negative gossip about another individual. They then were asked questions intended to measure the self-improvement, self-promotion and self-protection value of the received information.
It turned out that the individuals who received positive gossip had increased self-improvement value, whereas those who received the negative gossip had increased self-promotion value. (Negative gossip also increased self-protection concerns.)
In the second study, participants were assigned the role of a sales agent and given either negative or positive gossip about another’s job performance. (Not boring you with the details, this study specifically looked at the differences between those with a “salient performance goal” and those with a “salient mastery goal.”)
Like the first study, positive gossip in the second study had more self-improvement value, whereas negative gossip had greater self-promotion value and raised self-protection concerns. Negative gossip, meanwhile, elicited pride due to its self-promotion value since it provided individuals with information that justified their self-promotional judgments.
The researchers said they figured the participants would be more alert after receiving positive rather than negative gossip because they might find positive gossip provides a source of information they can learn from. But to their surprise, alertness was high in both positive and negative gossiping situations, probably because both forms of gossip are highly relevant for the receiver.
In a press release on the findings, lead researcher Elena Martinescu also noted some gender differences in the studies. “Women who receive negative gossip experience higher self-protection concerns, possibly because they believe they might experience a similar fate as the person being the target of the gossip, while men who receive positive gossip experience higher fear, perhaps because upward social comparisons with competitors are threatening.”
Of course, no one, including myself, is saying employers and HR leaders might start to design workplace initiatives that encourage gossiping. (I’ll leave it to you to imagine what such an initiative might look like.) But Martinescu and her colleagues suggest that we might want to be more open-minded about such behaviors, noting that being on the receiving end of gossip about other people might provide a valuable source of knowledge about ourselves.
Richard Marcus, a business psychologist and executive coach based in Philadelphia (who I recently shared the two studies with), agrees the findings offer a few insights worth considering, including the notions that discussion about an individual’s performance could have a positive value whether he or she is there or not; informal communication about performance could help to raise the bar by getting everyone involved and staying focused on performance; and that indirect criticism could have value both for the individual who is the subject of the criticism and those around him or her.
But Marcus also adds that the findings don’t diminish the fact that gossip can also have some obvious negative consequences, including putting too much focus on the individual and not the team; breeding distrust among co-workers; and wasting energy worrying about how individuals are being perceived and judged.
All points that are also well worth considering the next time you head in the direction of the watercooler.Twitter It!