Is there a place for gossip in the new normal?

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Aug 16 2022 by Bob Selden Print This Article

As a manager, I recall an occasion where I interviewed a lady for a job opportunity in my team. She was a good candidate, but not the most qualified for the position, so missed out on getting the role.

Some days later, one of my team said to me "I didn't know that you interviewed my sister for a job here", to which I replied, "No, that's her business if she wishes to tell you, not mine – those things are confidential". Over the next few days, I heard this story repeated (in various versions) through the office "grapevine" with the message that, "Bob can be trusted to keep confidences".

For me, that was a nice, positive piece of gossip. However, I'm sure we've all also experienced negative gossiping too. Gossip, although often thought of as negative, when either positive or negative, plays an important part in our bonding as humans, and in fact in our survival.

Professor Robin Dunbar, from the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford university, defines gossip as "social chit-chat", and suggests it makes up over 60% of our conversations. It plays an important part in our social bonding with each other and in groups. It's how we gather lots of our information and also helps us form our alliances and coalitions.

However, it's been said that gossip can also be toxic and a form of bullying, but depending on the context, it can also be a useful and strategic way to share information.

For example, Kathryn Waddington, reader in psychology, University of Westminster, points out there are, "times when gossip is an expression of concern about unethical or unprofessional behaviour – for instance when there is 'common knowledge' about sexual abuse, but nobody speaks up. When the topic of gossip is about poor practice in organisations, it can act as an early warning signal that should be heeded, rather than ignored or disregarded".

Importantly, gossip is our means of relationship building and bonding, which Andrew O'Keeffe in his book Hardwired Humans suggests that on average we spend about 20% of our day doing.

Pre-Covid, most of us spent the majority of our waking hours at work, many of us in offices, bonding. However, as O'Keeffe points out, "Offices are strange places because they are not our natural habitat, and yet we still apply the same rules of survival in the corridors and meeting rooms of our workplace that we used on the savannah all those centuries ago".

And for social animals like us, being part of a group is essential. "Some animals survive because they're really strong or have great speed," O'Keeffe says. "We survive through group belonging, which means individuals being members of small family groups of about seven, with family groups coming together to form clans of up to 150 people who support each other for the supply of food and to protect against predators." He goes on to suggest that businesses work best when they organise their staff in groups of this size.

However, that was how we were working together pre-Covid – and when I say, "working together", I mean physically working together. Do these same criteria for bonding and connecting hold true for those organisations operating under the new normal of hybrid or home working?

I wrote recently that under the new normal, we are only using two of our five principle senses – sight and sound. I'm now sensing that with the potential lack of ability to gossip, even these two senses may be limiting our ability to connect.

Andrew O'Keeffe suggests, "In the workplace we cannot be connected to people unless we spend time in idle chit chat." Do Zoom meetings provide for this social chit chat? Can we talk over coffee, or in the corridors via Zoom?

Whilst my personal bias is that the new normal will eventually lead to the demise of traditional corporate culture as we know it, there may be some ways that at least in part, forms of social bonding and connecting may be possible.

For example, in my hometown of Palmerston North, NZ, a lady who ran a local professional services organisation took an innovative approach during our Covid lockdown. Pre-Covid, her "team" of seven all worked on individual projects for which they only occasionally needed the input and support of their fellow team members. Realising that she had a "group" rather than a "team", she had her people stop work at 4PM every Friday for social drinks and chit-chat. So, for an hour and a half, they sat around and talked about anything and everything.

Once Covid hit and we went into lockdown, her people were easily able to work individually on their projects from home. However, the owner could see the need for continuing the social chit chat.

So, what did she do? Every Friday she baked cakes etc., and hand-delivered them to the doorstep of the homes of her team. Then, come 4PM, they all stopped work, Zoomed, and had drinks/cakes etc., together and had chit-chat. Situation almost normal!

In consulting with managers, I've regularly advised them to encourage their employees to gossip by organising a lunch or drinks after a meeting, thus semi-formalising the important process of gossiping.

Keeping in mind the research of Professor Robin Dunbar – that we spend as much as 60% of our conversations in gossip; that it helps our social bonding with each other and in groups; that it's how we gather lots of our information; and that it also helps us form our alliances and coalitions. I'm interested to hear how other managers are encouraging gossiping under the new normal working conditions – please write and let me know what you're doing.

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden, is an author, management consultant and coach based in New Zealand and working internationally. Much of his time currently is spent working with family businesses. He's the author of the best-selling What To Do When You Become The Boss. His new book, What To Do When Leadership Is Needed, was released in July 2022.