The Glass Hammer: Office Gossip: How It Can Actually Help You in Your Career

By Mary Chung | The Glass Hammer

How many times have we been told that there is no place for gossip in the office?

Let’s be honest, we are all guilty of it, and now we may not have to feel so bad for engaging in it.

According to a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science by researchers from Stanford University and the University of California-Berkeley, there can be positive effects to gossiping in groups because people learn through gossip about the behavior of others. The study showed that individuals readily gossiped reputational information about others, and groups used that gossip to selectively interact with cooperative people and encouraged cooperation as a team, while ostracizing those who were behaving selfishly and egotistically.

So, though it is still very much a frowned upon office activity, gossiping can have its benefits. It is also a part of the daily social interaction and office bonding that we have with our co-workers. What might be surprising, however, is that while women are typically stereotyped as being the bigger gossip than their male counterparts, in reality, research shows the opposite is true. Numerous studies show that men gossip more than women. Not only do men gossip more, but their choice of venue to gossip is usually at the office with other colleagues.

Are there ways for women –who already have the challenge of being stereotyped as gossiping more – to use this negative stereotype to benefit their career, especially since research shows that gossiping can have positive effects?

Kimberly Unger, Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director of theSecurities Traders Association of New York (STANY), said she has encountered many people who have benefited from gossip during her career. “Information can help. Even if it is untrue, you can learn a lot about the people who are spreading or starting the gossip and that in itself is information. Gossiping can also strengthen bonds between co-workers and that can lead to greater productivity, team work, and empathy,” Ms. Unger said.

Adrienne Becker, CEO of Glass Elevator Media, a production incubator that sources, secures and develops a co-owned intellectual property library that creates high-quality entertainment across multiple platforms, said: “office gossip is a universal reality” that can impact a person’s career. She describes an example of how she personally benefited earlier in her career.

“It would be hard to imagine that office gossip hasn’t played in a role in most careers. Years ago, during my first day on the job at a large media corporation, there was a rumor that my boss, the VP, would be fired for a mishap that pre-dated me. I wasn’t sure why my new colleagues were telling me this and wasn’t sure it was a great thing to be so visible on day one. But when the gossip played itself out in reality, I was prepared to step into the VP role because I had time to think it through,” Ms. Becker said. “When you have a mechanism to manage change and anticipate surprises, it will serve you well. In this sense, gossip is an essential career tool.”

While Ms. Unger cannot think of any examples of gossip that personally benefited her career, she noted, “Learning things that you are generally not ‘supposed to know’ certainly has not hurt and I am sure that there were times when being ‘in the know’ helped with tasks, possibly with getting assignments.”

She also remembers a time when gossip had hurt her career. “As a young lawyer I worked with a small group of men in a large firm and was close to the men in my group. I know that other women (not in my group) were resentful and found it hard to believe that men and women could be friends,” she said. “I know things were said behind by back. Since they were entirely untrue I dismissed them. However, in my next job I made sure to keep my distance and avoid even the appearance of friendship with male partners. I think that was a mistake which I would not have made but for the gossip.”

Neither Becker nor Unger support the stereotype that women gossip more in the office. Ms. Unger said from her own experience at the workplace, she agreed with all the studies that confirm men are more likely to gossip than women. “Women may be seen as gossiping more because women tend to speak among themselves more than men do, but the conversations tend to be more personal – including personal feelings about work – then conservations between men. Most of the gossip that I have been privy to has started with men and been exchanges between me and men,” Ms. Unger said.

Ms. Becker noted that when people work within conditions they don’t control and there is competition for resources, people deal with it by talking and forging alliances. “The only gender implication is when shows such as Gossip Girl orReal Housewives reinforce and propagate misperceptions that gossip is gender specific. While there are well-documented nuances as to how women and men communicate, gossip is clearly a human behavior in group settings such as the workplace.”

How does all the gossiping affect a person’s leadership ability in one’s career? According to Ms. Becker, “Good leaders naturally cultivate alliances within their groups. This helps them manage gossip and lead effectively.” She continued, “As a leader, you have to find those honest sources who will put gossip into context and keep you updated as the cycles ebb and flow. Part of being a leader is having a sense of the chatter, knowing what is on the minds of your teammates, and how it should impact or not your decision making.”