By Elizabeth Rozell, Ph.D.
When was the last time you heard some juicy gossip about one of your coworkers? Probably not that long ago.
The office grapevine is a natural part of any workplace, and because information from fellow coworkers can travel quickly and is accepted by a majority of people, it can have a significant impact among employees.
Approximately 75 percent of the information gathered through the grapevine turns out to be true. However, that leaves at least 25 percent of the information to be false or erroneous. Depending on how it is handled by management, gossip can be hurtful or it can be helpful.
As might be expected, negative outcomes can result from gossip. One of the most observable negative aspects of gossip is the damage it can do to relationships and the reputation of another person in the workplace.
Angie Mullings, broker/owner of Century 21 Integrity Group in Springfield, says in her experience, most gossip is centered on the treatment of one coworker compared to another.
“A coworker being the boss’ pet is the best example I can think of. A feeling of inequality in the workplace is the biggest contributor to gossip that I have experienced.”
In this situation, the supposed recipient of the favored treatment is often ostracized from group activities, Mullings says.
“He or she feels a lack of support from coworkers, without understanding why.”
Another notorious impact of gossip is the grapevine effect. The longer the message travels from the original source and the more individuals it passes through, the more distorted it becomes, often resulting in incorrect information.
Although gossip often has negative ramifications in the workplace, it can be used for constructive purposes if managed effectively. The office grapevine is often the fastest way to get a message communicated throughout an organization.
When revisions to policies or other personnel guidelines are being formulated, feedback can often be achieved simply by “leaking” information, and then waiting for the gossip to begin.
This allows the reaction of workers to be observed without the threat of management reprisal.
It is also important for managers to realize that gossip, which can lead to social bonding, is a regular part of daily communication between staff and can produce more effective teamwork.
One of the long term results of gossip is that it serves as a source of information about management style and behavior of personnel.
It helps to establish the “unwritten policies” that exist in every workplace. Without issuing formal policy statements, management can allow the office grapevine to work for them as the “way to do things” is shared through the gossip/rumor mill.
Because the office grapevine is the most informal type of communication, it makes employees feel comfortable and can help form strong working relationships and meaningful social camaraderie. The informal bonding can help to establish trust between coworkers and create benefits both inside and outside of the workplace as employees identify common interests and activities.
This, in turn, makes them much more at ease with fellow staff members.
The office grapevine and other informal communication networks must be managed effectively. When gossip becomes negative, managers should act immediately to bring it under control.
The goal of managers should not be to eliminate the office grapevine, but to quickly identify it, assess the impact and take action to manage it properly, so that it can result in a positive outcome.
This article appeared in the June 15, 2014 issue of the Springfield News-Leader. It is available online here.
Elizabeth Rozell, Ph.D., is a professor of management and associate dean of the College of Business at Missouri State University.
Rozell also holds the Kenneth E. Meyer Professorship and is director of the MBA program. Her specialties include organizational behavior, leadership and emotional intelligence. Email: email@example.com.