The tendency to engage in gossip may be endemic to social life, particularly when it’s so easy to engage in idle online chatter. By definition, gossip doesn’t have to be negative, but as conveyed by the often-associated adjective “juicy,” it usually does contain unflattering observations about others who themselves are unaware that they’re the subject of conversation.
Gossip is hardly a phenomenon unique to the age of social media. As noted in a new paper by KEDGE Business School’s (Marseille, France) Ghulam Murtaza and colleagues (2022), “in line with its Shakespearian meaning, gossip has been massively associated with destabilizing and organizationally disruptive phenomena” (p. 2). In other words, gossip has the capacity to tear down existing social bonds, potentially creating havoc among groups of people who work together, are part of the same family, or share other connections. A tells B a story about C, and now no one in the little group feels they can trust each other, but C, specifically, can feel so angered as to try to seek retribution.
Gossip and Counterproductive Behavior
Maintaining that gossip in the workplace can be particularly disruptive, the French research team focused on an industrial setting. The 306 employees in their sample represented 66 software houses and call centers, all located in Pakistan, who ranged from technical engineers and programmers to those working in the support areas of sales, marketing, and human resources.
The study’s main premise was that employees exposed to negative gossip would be more likely to engage in counterproductive work behaviors toward the company (e.g., taking extra time for themselves during breaks) and toward other workers (e.g., saying something hurtful to someone). The extent to which participants felt they were the targets of negative gossip, in turn, was hypothesized to predict emotional exhaustion or burnout, and it was this exhaustion that ultimately would lead to higher levels of counterproductive work behaviors. People exposed to high levels of social media usage at work, furthermore, were predicted to be more negatively affected by gossip.
The authors further hypothesized that not everyone would show this unfortunate pattern. Mitigating the pathway leading from gossip to exhaustion to counterproductive work behaviors, in the model developed by the research team, is “moral attentiveness,” a personality trait encompassing awareness of moral experiences in daily life (perceptual moral attentiveness) and the tendency to take moral issues into account when making decisions (reflective moral attentiveness).
You might be able to relate to the concept of moral attentiveness if you consider your own everyday thoughts and actions. If given a chance to cheat, such as keeping a package sent to you by mistake, would you do it? Would it even seem like a moral issue to you? If so, then you theoretically would be high in the moral attentiveness trait, and in the workplace would be less likely to figure out ways to cheat the company or take aim at your fellow employees, even if gossip made you angry.
Testing the Gossip Model
The general framework of the Murtaza et al. study falls in the category of a “conservation of resources” model in the organizational literature. This model predicts that gossip leads to “emotional consumption” as employees use their energy at work to fend off hurt feelings. Even though specific to the workplace, the conservation of resources model can also provide a useful approach to understanding how people react to negative gossip in their own ecosystems of family and friends.
The IT workers in the Murtaza et al. study completed surveys across a 6-month period, with three surveys separated by two months each. The initial sample of 989 participants eventually became reduced to 306, a problem not that uncommon in studies involving multiple points of measurement.
A three-item scale assessed exposure to negative workplace gossip in the form of “damaging information” being communicated by coworkers and/or supervisors. In addition to using standard measures of emotional exhaustion and a simple social media use scale, the authors assessed moral attentiveness with a 12-item scale that included the following items:
- “Many of the decisions I make have ethical dimensions” (perceptual moral attentiveness)
- “I think about the morality of my actions almost every day” (reflective moral attentiveness)
After subjecting the data to the predicted model, the research team found that the highest levels of counterproductive work behaviors were indeed conducted by workers low in moral attentiveness (combining perceptual and reflective varieties) and heavily exposed to social media. Emotional exhaustion served as the link between gossip exposure and counterproductive work behaviors. As the authors concluded, “we believe that damaging conversations about someone who is not present can be a toxic virus that spreads and ultimately deteriorates an organisation’s environment” (p. 17). The “dark side” of social media use, furthermore, was supported by the findings that the hurt feelings created by gossip on a public platform could create an even greater desire for retribution in the workplace setting.
Turning to the buffering role of moral attentiveness, the authors further go on to note that “attentiveness to ethics plays a role as a resource for facing stressful situations” (p. 17). People high in moral attentiveness avoid emotional exhaustion because they are able to find strength in their own ability to behave in an ethical manner.
Building Your Own Anti-Gossip Reserves
Based on the KEDGE school study, these 2 key strategies can help inoculate you against gossip’s ability to bring you down:
- Shore up your moral attentiveness: You’ll be less likely to seek retribution, causing further damage to your relationships, if you vow to take the moral high road, even when attacked.
- Take pride in your strength of character: High moral attentiveness can build your self-esteem, a valuable resource to have in any situation.
Those “slings and arrows” of negative gossip, from this standpoint, become tiny insults rather than grave threats to your inner sense of well-being. Let the petty people gossip about you, in other words, it’s their problem and not yours.
To sum up, exposure to gossip is hardly a pleasant experience. However, by digging deep into your own personal reserves, you can let that gossip pass you by as you pursue your own inner path to fulfillment.