Gossip Girls and Boys – HR’s New Productivity Weapon?

Paul Hebert Audacious Ideas, Culture, Employee Coaching, Employee Engagement, Engagement and Satisfaction, HR, Influence, Organizational Development, Paul Hebert

For all my career I’ve heard that loose lips sink ships. I was told don’t talk about your coworkers, don’t spread gossip. And if you are in HR, you probably already know you are at the epicenter of gossip. I don’t mean you are the cause of it. But a whole lot of the info that fuels gossip passes through the HR department because of the need for HR to be involved with most of the issues associated with individuals in the organization. From hirings, firings, promotions, health issues, probationary actions and anything else you can think of, HR is in the loop. HR is about people—and that means by default—the gossip and stories about those people.

But here’s something you may want to check out. Researchers have found that hearing gossip triggers self-reflection, helping the listener improve behavior and identify threats.

Yep… in experiments where people either recalled actual gossip or played a part in role-playing with gossip about fictional employees…

“Hearing positive gossip about others prompted a desire for self-improvement. Negative gossip boosted listeners’ egos but also put them on guard—it would be only too easy to become one of the disgraced.”

The studies also showed that women were more affected by negative gossip, creating a more alert and self-protection posture while men who heard positive gossip about others experienced fear they would not measure up.

Shut It Down Or Make It Work For You?

Now, I’m not one for malicious gossip that does nothing but tear down the individual or are simply ad hominem attacks masquerading as gossip, but this does raise the question (at least in my puny brain): How can you create and share stories (read gossip) within an organization that can help move behaviors and set new standards for performance without it becoming an episode of Real Housewives?

Is it gossip when you talk about how Tim in accounting spent all weekend working on a new project (even if part of the story involves the words “kissing” and “ass?”)

Is it gossip when a group of people talk about how a manager allows flex-time for their employees even though others don’t? I mean—who does she think she is?!

Or is your opinion that gossip in any form is simply too toxic an option to let go, and it must be shut down fast and furious?

Before you answer that question consider what the lead psychologist on the study said:

“Hearing gossip helps people evaluate themselves more accurately in comparison to others,” says psychologist Elena Martinescu, lead author of the study. She notes that although gossip can sometimes be malicious, most of it is shared in good faith: “Contrary to lay perceptions, gossip has an essential role in helping us know ourselves and adapt to our world.”

From this statement it would seem that it is better to manage gossip than to eliminate it.

Is that possible? Is that something HR should even be involved with? Is most gossip shared in “good faith?” This data point of one would seem to think it isn’t but let’s not let our availability or confirmation biases rule.

Should you have a “gossip” policy like many companies who now have social media policies?

I am interested in this from a psychology perspective, from a human performance perspective and finding ways to allow our “humanness” to grow and flourish in our companies.

But I don’t know if I want to be in HR if I have may have to manage this time bomb.

What’s your take—gossip no or gossip yes?

Better to eliminate the problem than manage the benefit?

Hit me in the comments and I’ll tell you what Jill in engineering said at lunch the other day. It will blow your mind!