HOT GOSSIP – AND WHY A RETURN TO THE WATER-COOLER MIGHT BE A GOOD IDEA
You might love a bit of gossip; or you might (claim you) try never to get involved. You might be glad
to be done with office politics if your post-Covid pandemic work option is to work from home; or you
might relish swapping juicy titbits of office information in those ‘water-cooler conversations’ now
you’re back at work.
A recently published study funded by the European Research Council suggests a positive role for
gossip in workplace learning and behaviour. Hearing it could be good for you!
Researchers from China and The Netherlands created a series of hypotheses about gossip and its
effects. They tested these in a study involving 383 full-time employees and their supervisors in
Chinese industries – including IT, construction, and finance.
Gossip is a widespread phenomenon. It’s been defined as communication between people about a
person who is not present to hear what is being said. And it can be either positive or negative.
Negative gossip conveys information about people’s ‘norm-violating’ behaviours or poor
performance. Positive gossip conveys information about people’s desirable behaviours and good
Both types of gossip can contain valuable lessons to help you either avoid undesirable outcomes
experienced by others or, alternatively, achieve similar levels of success. Hearing gossip can help you
identify gaps in your knowledge, skills or abilities and may help direct your attention towards role
models in your social environment you could learn from.
Importantly, the researchers in this study paid attention to how the personal characteristics of
people hearing gossip influenced their response to what they learnt.
If you have a ‘prevention focus’, you are more likely to be alert to messages about others’ improper
or inadvisable behaviours to avoid personal loss. If you have a ‘promotion focus’ you are more likely
to be alert to messages that indicate the kinds of self-improvement activities you should take to reap
the rewards of success.
The results from the study provided robust evidence that gossip acts as a learning opportunity
indirectly associated with good levels of workplace performance and helpful behaviours. How this
learning opportunity is used is dependent on the focus of the person hearing the gossip – avoidance
of harm or positioning for success.
So, you might enjoy gossip, or it might something that drives you mad. But whereas gossip is often
seen as a destructive behaviour, it could be in your interests to pay attention to it.
If you find the prevalence of gossip in your workplace stressful then it might help if you reframe its
existence as a learning opportunity. If you’re someone who works from home, it might be
worthwhile thinking about how you can get exposure to gossip. In either case, find a water-cooler
that works for you.
Zhu, Q., Martinescu, E., Beersma, B. and Wei, F. (2022). How does receiving gossip from co-workers influence
employees’ task performance and interpersonal deviance? The moderating roles of regulatory focus and the
mediating role of vicarious learning. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 95 pp213–238.