A recent study found that nearly 90% of workplace conversations fall under the category of gossip (Bassuk & Lew, 2016). Wow! That may sound unbelievable at first but if you consider the way the researchers defined gossip it might not be so farfetched. They define gossip as an informal, evaluative or judgmental talk among a few individuals about someone else not present (Kurland & Pelled, 2000). From the “gossiper’s” perspective, he or she may see this as a valuable tool to gather and validate information, make sense of a situation, and even be a learning experience (Tassiello et al. 2018). However, for the person that is the target of this type of conversation, it’s likely to result in that person being less likely to engage with other co-workers and may lead them to feel isolated and even hostile toward others and the organization (Wu et al., 2018). You may be thinking, how do people know when they are being gossiped about? If you think about it, most of us are able to pick up on subtle clues such as the gossipers avoiding eye contact with us or stopping the conversation when we approach. If we’re honest, we have all been on both sides of gossip… as an initiator and as a target.
A recent study on the effect of targets of gossip found what we all know: that being the target of gossip not only impacts our mood but also impacts our relationships, both with our co-workers and even our clients and customers (Babalola et al., 2019). However, the most interesting finding from this study was that an individual’s level of mindfulness and ability to forgive was a powerful means to effectively deal with gossip at work. The practical implications of this study suggest that organizations need to be more aware of the severe impact of negative workplace gossip – both for the social environment and the impact on organizational performance. And, that managers need to be aware that negative gossip is not just a natural consequence of the work world but may, more importantly, mask issues that need to be addressed.
Is there a solution?
Another important finding from this study suggests that organizations may want to explore offering mindfulness-based programs to help employees become more aware of their emotions, build empathy and compassion, develop skills necessary for reducing stress, and to learn to forgive others. Mindfulness-based programs which are available to all interested employees (just like Levelhead!) can provide the scaffolding needed to create an environment where employees feel safe, supported, and have strong relationships with others. Because it is not likely that gossip at work will disappear any time soon, it might be a good time to consider what you can do to manage this ubiquitous phenomenon. Below are two exercises to help you get started personally. If you have been the target, you might want to take a moment and listen to the exercise on forgiveness. If you’re feeling a little guilty about a conversation you’ve had that might be classified as gossip, you might want to listen to the practice related to empathy at work. It just might be time to stop ignoring something that has such a significant impact on our performance, job satisfaction, and our overall well-being.
Babalola, M. T., Ren, S., Kobinah, T., Qu, Y. E., Garba, O. A., & Guo, L. (2019). Negative workplace gossip: Its impact on customer service performance and moderating roles of trait mindfulness and forgiveness. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 80, 136-143.
Bassuk, A., Lew, C., 2016. The Antidote to Oﬃce Gossip. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2016/11/the-antidote-to-oﬃce-gossip.
Tassiello, V., Lombardi, S., Costabile, M., 2018. Are we truly wicked when gossiping at work? The role of valence, interpersonal closeness and social awareness. J. Bus. Res. 84, 141–149.