The value of gossip in an organization

If you were raised like me, the concept of “gossip” has a pretty negative connotation. However, in a podcast I listened to recently, they mentioned how valuable gossip is within an organization and for the status of leaders within their teams. I’m unfortunately not going to share the podcast, because the authors turned out to be trans-phobic and I’m not comfortable with promoting that.

Anyway, I got curious and did some research after that. The internet seems to have two differing opinions: either gossip is bad, you should feel bad if you engage in it, and leaders need to make sure it’s squashed wherever possible. Or – and this is the newer perspective – gossip is good for an organization (or any social group). One important note: we’re not talking about bullying, just “normal” gossip. Bullying or mobbing is not okay.

From what I learned,  humans use gossip as a way to subtly enforce the unwritten social rules of their environment. If you hear from a lot of people how it’s really not okay for John to interrupt Jane in every meeting, it enforces the rule that it’s not okay for people to interrupt each other (I wish). Another thing I learned is that gossip about the leaders in a group may keep the leader more present in the group. This was mentioned when discussing leaders that are very far removed from the day to day of most people, like a CEO. If you can’t gossip about your leaders, they are too distant from the group and therefore have less impact. So if you’re a leader, it’s super important to give people something (positive) to gossip about. Basically, be human to your teams!

As I was reflecting on this, it was certainly eye-opening to see the patterns behind all the little conversations over coffee and why they always felt valuable to me. It seems to boil down to these two things: Negative gossip enforces social rules, and positive gossip about you enforces your social standing in your absence. If you’re human, both are an important part of your social life. If you want to be an effective leader, both have potential value.