Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

Why I Gossip at Work (And You Should Too)

ARCHIVES
Image via ollyy/Shutterstock.com

Ask people to generate a list of social sins, and sooner or later, gossip is bound to come up. Sure, it pales in comparison to coveting thy neighbor, but the Bible does warn us that we should “not go about spreading slander.” And if your mother is like mine, she probably told you that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say it at all.

But what if our moms were wrong?

In a series of new studies, social scientists have introduced a form of gossip that actually makes people better off. Imagine that you’re given $10. You can pass as much of the money as you want to Joe. The amount that you give him will be tripled, and he can then share as much as he wants with you. You decide to pass all $10 to Joe, so he now has $30. Instead of sharing the spoils, Joe keeps the entire $30 for himself, leaving you with nothing.

Now, Lisa is going to play the same game with Joe, and you have the chance to pass her a note. How would you feel — and what would you write?

In this experiment, led by the psychologist Matthew Feinberg, most people were irritated. Ninety-six percent of people chose to gossip about Joe. They wrote things like “Joe is not reliable; he’s playing for his own selfish interest.”

They were annoyed beforehand, but gossiping made them feel better, and their heart rates dropped as a result. “Witnessing the unfair play,” the researchers write, “led to elevated heart rates for participants who had no opportunity to gossip.”

Typically, gossiping is a way to get a leg up on others. It carries a veiled threat: if you cross me, I’ll spread bad news about you too. And by putting others down, we signal that we’re superior — and that we have access to privileged information.

But this kind of gossip is different. It’s called prosocial gossip, and it involves spreading negative reputational information about someone who harms, deceives, or exploits others.

Prosocial gossip comes from people who value fairness. In one of their studies, Feinberg’s team asked people to make decisions about sharing resources evenly, or preferred to maximize their own gains. A couple months later, they got to see Joe acting selfishly. The more they valued fairness, the more they gossiped prosocially. If you care about justice, you feel like it’s your mission in life to punish Joe—and to protect Lisa. You go out on a limb to deliver an important warning to everyone who might be vulnerable: Joe has a history of nefarious behavior, so don’t trust him.

In fact, 76% of people were willing to pay their own money for the opportunity to gossip about Joe. After receiving $5 for participating in the study, people paid an average of $1.19 to get a note to Lisa about Joe’s tendency to take advantage of others.

Prosocial gossip protects Lisa against Joe, but it also discourages Joe from being selfish. In another study, Feinberg’s team mentioned that people would have the chance to write notes to others who would play the game. This had no effect on people who valued fairness and generosity—they shared their resources regardless. But it transformed the behavior of the most selfish people.

On average, knowing that other people could find out about their behavior boosted the contributions of the most selfish players by 17-23%. This was enough to turn them into the most generous players. Under the threat of gossip, the takers actually gave more than the givers.

Prosocial gossip has three major benefits: it allows us to feel that we’re promoting justice, it protects other people against exploitation, and it encourages would-be exploiters to act more cooperatively and generously.

This doesn’t mean gossip is always good. In an emerging body of research, Shimul Melwani finds that if you gossip about members of your team, you’ll be seen as less trustworthy, and your team will become less cooperative and more political. Yet if you gossip about people on someone else’s team, you can actually build trust, promote cooperation, and dismantle politics. Putting down a common enemy is a form of social glue.

I used to see gossip as a vice, and most of the time, it probably is. After reflecting on this research, though, I’ve come to realize that prosocial gossip can be a virtue. Recently, I warned a student to proceed cautiously when dealing with an adviser who has a history of exploiting students. I also told a colleague about the checkered history of a potential business partner and shared some disconcerting feedback about a job candidate with a hiring committee.

I still prefer to say nice things about people behind their backs, but in these situations, I feel that I have a social responsibility to speak candidly. If I don’t warn people about the most manipulative and Machiavellian marauders in their midst, I’m leaving them vulnerable to attack. And if I don’t make it known that I’m willing to spread the word about bad behavior, I’m failing to deter it in the first place.

You asked for an explanation, and now you have it. This is why I’ve been gossiping more in the past few months.

Sorry, Mom.

For more on prosocial gossip, see Adam’s book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMGrant

Image via ollyy/Shutterstock.com

July 31, 2012Whart, ... ]

Adam Grant is the youngest tenured professor at Wharton. He has been recognized as Wharton’s single-highest-rated teacher, one of BusinessWeek’s favorite professors, and one of the world’s 40 best business professors under 40. Previously, he was a record-setting advertising director at Let’s Go Publications, an All-American springboard diver, and a professional magician. Adam is the author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. He earned his Ph.D. in organizational psychology from the University of Michigan, completing it in less than three years, and his B.A. from Harvard University, magna cum laude with highest honors and Phi Beta Kappa honors. He has been honored with the Excellence in Teaching Award for every class that he has taught and has presented for leaders at organizations such as Google, the NFL, Merck, Pixar, Goldman Sachs, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, and the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force.

FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download
  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.