Psst…Here are 5 ways to make workplace gossip work for you

Legendary gossip columnist Liz Smith turned gossip into gold for newspapers and for herself — she made an estimated $1 million a year in her heyday.

The Grand Dame of Dish, who died Sunday, was the first to tell the world that Donald Trump was divorcing his first wife, Ivana. She was a pro, but there are ways ordinary working Joes can make gossip work for them too. Gossip is typically seen as a no-no in the workplace, but in some instances, it can actually be a career-boosting tool.

“If you decide ‘I’m going to stay out of the fray and I’m not going to listen to gossip,’ you’re cutting yourself off from potentially very valuable information about your organization,” said Amy E. Gallo, author of the “HBR (Harvard Business Review) Guide to Dealing with Conflict.”

Gossip can serve as a kind of tacit guide to an organization, providing clues about where it’s headed, which projects are important to the boss, who to work with and who to avoid, and how to best spend your time, Gallo said.

That said, participating in workplace gossip comes with big caveats. Don’t spread false information, and don’t share information that could hurt people or damage relationships, Gallo and other experts warned.

Gossip can breed disharmony and ultimately disrupt the workplace, said Alicia Bassuk, an executive coach and founder of Ubica Strategy. “Uncertainty, doubt, reluctance and reservation combine to form an endangering quicksand to the cohesion and dependability of a workplace culture,” she said.

Here’s how to make gossip work for you:

Realize that gossip is often times complimentary

You walk over to the coffee machine and surprise two of your coworkers in a huddle. You hear your name but not much else. It’s easy to assume the worst — that they were talking negatively about you. But studies show that when people are talking about someone who’s not present, it’s more commonly because they’re praising them, not trashing them, Gallo said. So when you think you see or hear gossip happening, don’t get upset.

Gossipers are seen as influential, but on the other hand….

Gossip is a double-edged sword: People who do it are seen as influential by their peers, because they’re perceived as keepers of a valuable commodity — information. But supervisors don’t like gossip. It makes them feel like they’re losing control, and they tend to give gossipy employees lower performance ratings, according to a 2010 University of Kentucky study on workplace gossip.

Most people in the workplace engage in minor and relatively harmless gossip, said Liane Davey, a Toronto-based organizational psychology expert. “They tend to be extroverted types who get energy from social interactions,” Davey said. “More serious forms of gossip, where there is a victim, tend to be the domain of passive-aggressive types who don’t have the confidence or courage to address issues directly.”

Sharing stories helps form bonds between specific people

Negative gossip tends to flow between coworkers who feel friendly toward each other, with a relationship that goes beyond their work duties, according to the University of Kentucky study. Gossiping is a sign that you trust someone, and by engaging in it, you’re building a social and emotional bond with that person that can serve you in the workplace.

On the other hand, gossip can hinder an organization’s effectiveness if employees rely on false rumors when making decisions about whether to work with each other, and that can lead to making bad choices. “The more gossip enters the judgment process, the less reliable decisions are,” Bassuk said.

The grapevine can be useful when an organization is going through big changes

Looming layoffs and other crises can spark gossip, especially when top management stops communicating with employees. In these instances, gossip can be one tool to decipher what’s happening. But always consider the source and ask how they know what they know, Gallo said. “Sometimes that information can ease your anxiety, but you have to be able to trust it,” Gallo said.

Gossip can build harmony by establishing norms…

Gossip about employees who aren’t performing well is a way to communicate the organization’s goals and expectations. “Those who violate the unspoken rules of the organization can be chastised and cast out through gossip,” Davey said. That can lead to greater group harmony and cooperation, according to a 2014 Stanford University study. “Groups that allow their members to gossip sustain cooperation and deter selfishness better than those that don’t,” said study co-author Matthew Feinberg.

…and that has newfound implications in light of the Harvey Weinstein case

Gossip can serve to police bad behavior and, in fact, alerting others about bad behavior can even be therapeutic. A 2012 University of California, Berkeley study found that people’s heart rates were calmed after spreading information warning others of someone’s improper actions in the workplace.

The wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations being leveled against powerful men in the media, Hollywood and politics began as whispered rumors in some cases, most notably Harvey Weinstein’s.

“It would be better if the concerns could be made directly, but it’s understandable that people with little power need to be bolstered before they feel comfortable doing that,” Davey said. “That said, until gossip is converted into communication in the proper channels, it won’t do what it needs to do.”

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