Gossip is an important indicator of workplace relationships. Lea Ellwardt’s research shows that it can lead to close ties between employees of an organization and can even lead to the development of friendships. Ellwardt will defend her thesis at the University of Groningen on 30 June 2011.
In her research Ellwardt primarily focused on the social relationships among people who gossip and people who are gossiped about in organizations and companies. What are the relationships like? Who talks to whom? And who do they talk about? ‘I was especially interested in relationships of trust between employees and the quality of their social and formal relationships, particularly because you usually can’t choose whom you work with.’
Gossip is not necessarily negative, Ellwardt contends. ‘The definition of gossip is talking about someone who’s not present at that moment. This can mean talking negatively about someone, but it can also mean talking about positive things.’
People whose relationship is based on trust are more likely to share negative gossip with each other. Logical, says Ellwardt, ‘You’re not as likely to criticize another person to someone you don’t know well. Spreading negative gossip about someone does also entail an element of risk: disapproval, for example. It’s important that the gossip can trust the person receiving the information to handle the information discretely and not to spread it further.’
Gossiping helps people strengthen their ties with others. Ellwardt documented the gossip and friendship between employees three times within the space of a year. Employees who gossip together often become friends as time passes. Very active gossiping, however, does not mean increased popularity in the friendship network. On the contrary, trust tends to diminish in someone who gossips with lots of different people, as well as their popularity. Whereas a certain level of trust is necessary for people to spread negative gossip, they are less selective with positive gossip. Ellwardt says, ‘This is less sensitive and is therefore possible with everyone’. Furthermore, it is not the case with positive gossip that popular colleagues are mentioned more often. ‘That did surprise me. People don’t automatically talk more positively about someone who has lots of friends. People who are the subject of negative conversations are mentioned more often, however.’
Ellwardt believes that her research only has limited generalizability. ‘I conducted my research in a social organization in the healthcare sector. Many women work there, many of them have a part-time job and there is a strong hierarchy, in which the bosses tend to be male. It seemed to me that a male boss such as this would be an attractive subject of negative gossip, purely because it isn’t easy to approach him directly. This didn’t seem to actually be the case, though.’
Bosses are mainly talked about negatively if their employees do not trust them. The opposite is not true, however: a boss whom many people trust isn’t positively discussed more often. Ellwardt says, ‘There’s nothing sensational about things if they are going well, so there’s nothing to talk about.’
For day to day purposes, the research can primarily provide some pointers to managers, says Ellwardt, ‘A manager who thinks there is lots of negative gossip in the workplace doesn’t necessarily need to take action about the gossip itself. However, he can consider it an indicator. Continual negative gossip indicates that something is wrong. This is generally a problem of trust. Problems you can solve with more transparency, for example. Furthermore, it would seem that as a boss you don’t need to worry if there’s a lot of gossip about you – as long as you get on well with your subordinates.’
No gossip at all in the workplace is not necessarily good, says Ellwardt, ‘People who talk about each other a lot have a certain interest in each other. If they don’t do this at all, it could mean that they don’t find each other interesting. Gossip therefore has a number of positive functions: it’s entertaining, you can kill time doing it and it can help you form closer relationships.’
Lea Ellwardt (Germany, 1981) studied sociology at Dresden University of Technology and conducted her PhD research at the Interuniversity Centre for Social Science Theory and Methodology. Her PhD is in Behavioural and Social Sciences. Her supervisor was Prof. Rafael Wittek, and Dr Rudi Wielers and Dr Christian Steglich her co-supervisors. The title of her thesis is ‘Gossip in organizations. A social network study’. Ellwardt will carry on conducting research at the ICS as a postdoc.
Contact: Lea Ellwardt, tel. 050-363 6981, e-mail: l.ellwardt rug.nl
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