Good-natured gossip may indirectly improve team performance

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Watercooler conversations might have some advantages at work. (Unsplash/Romain V)

Gossip is generally thought to be a bad thing, especially in the workplace, but a new study has found that positive gossip among teams can have some benefits, showing that the effects of gossip might be more nuanced than originally thought.

The study, published April 28 in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, found that positive gossip among team members decreases social loafing, which is the idea that people might exert less effort when working with others rather than performing a task alone. This result suggests that, rather than flat-out eliminating gossip in the workplace, organizations should look to the potential advantages of positive gossip.

Academically, gossip has been defined as the "informal and evaluative" discussions that people have among themselves about another member of their organization who is not present to hear what is said; it is largely thought to be an inherently harmful activity that should be suppressed, according to the authors of the study.

In past academic literature, gossip has been treated as deviant behavior that harms relationships, and some places have even outlawed it; but more recent research has posited that gossip is neither inherently good nor bad, arguing that the qualitative factors of gossip determine its impacts and therefore may be a positive thing.

"Gossip might be more nuanced than we tend to think," said Trevor Spoelma, lead author of the paper and an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico. "It can have positive forms and negative forms."

Whereas negative gossip focuses on criticism and negative impressions, positive gossip focuses on discussing the positive qualities and attributes of another person. 

The researchers conducted a longitudinal field study with 313 undergraduate business students who were split into 63 teams to work on a semester-long team project in an introductory management course. This project contributed to 30% of the students' overall grade in the class, so they were highly motivated to do well.

The project itself was unrelated to the subject of the present study, but the students were asked survey questions about gossip among their group, both positive and negative, at the midpoint of the semester. Four weeks later, they were asked about social loafing among the group. Finally, the researchers looked at overall performance by assessing the team's final project submitted at the end of the semester.

The researchers found that positive gossip was correlated with a decrease in social loafing; in other words, positive gossip was correlated with higher motivation and effort levels among all teammates, which in turn indirectly and positively impacted team performance. The researchers found no evidence that negative gossip had an indirect, negative effect on team performance through social loafing. 

To the surprise of the researchers, positive gossip was more common than negative gossip.

"I think that was surprising for me personally, because I think of negative gossip, I think that would be kind of more common," Spoelma said. "But really, in our teams, they did gossip positively about their teammates, and it was common, and it had this positive effect."

The authors posit that positive gossip may have had these beneficial effects because it served as a reward, or recognition, for a teammate's contribution and hard work. 

"Nobody wants to put forth effort on something if everybody else is not going to put forth effort, so we find that gossip can really kind of fill in the gaps in that regard and improve motivation," Spoelma said.

Additionally, Spoelma and his co-author, Andrea Hetrick, suggest that gossip might be a practice that helps teammates get to know each other when beginning a project together for the first time.

"In contexts where you don't really know a lot about your teammates, especially how you might perform in the future, positive gossip, in particular, can kind of fill those gaps," Spoelma said. "So it can tell you information about your teammates, it can tell you what other teammates think about your teammates, in ways that are useful."

The big takeaway of this research, Spoelma told The Academic Times, is that organizations should think twice about policies that outright ban gossip, because these policies might miss out on the benefits of positive gossip, and they may even have unintended consequences. That positive gossip can have beneficial effects is a relatively new idea, but it's one that the researchers hope others capitalize on in the future.

"It's a very simple idea; it's kind of one that's a little counterintuitive," Spoelma said. "And it, hopefully, kind of energizes research in this area and positive forms of gossip in organizations."

The study, "More than idle talk: Examining the effects of positive and negative team gossip," published April 28 in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, was authored by Trevor Spoelma and Andrea Hetrick, University of New Mexico. 

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