Gossip in organizations is almost universally seen as a negative phenomenon and one that in a work situation should be stamped out if at all possible, but what if there were valuable knowledge to be gained from gossip and information that could improve corporate governance and innovation?
For the purposes of this article I am going to conflate gossip and rumor to a large degree, although at a finer level of granularity the two become very different (McAndrew 2008)– Rumor deals more with externalities and objects, whereas gossip involves interpersonal relationships more.
Gossip is a natural human communicative phenomenon that is part of our evolution (McAndrew and Milenkovic 2002) that does several things, amongst which are articulation of what people are worried about, worries that are insufficiently known, instances of cheating, and changes of positional power or influence.
In case you get bored by the discussion later on, I am going to discuss a quick win first – mining the gossip in your organization as an early-warning system.
Early Warning System
Perhaps I should qualify “early” here – I don’t mean like you have a radar that can detect an oncoming wave of bombers long before they reach your shores, I mean in the sense that you get to sample what is already eating away at your foundations and which may give you an idea of what you are dealing with.
For this reason I strongly recommend that gossip be sampled regularly in order to get on the radar screen threats and weaknesses that might otherwise have been missed until they made themselves known more overtly and systemically.
The technique is to gather gossip without people being afraid that the intent is to track the source and to mete out punishment.
If people fear retribution, the gossip doesn’t go away and neither do the causes, it just goes silent – silencing gossip is the equivalent of switching off power to the radar screen.
The idea is not to encourage gossip as much as simply sample and monitor it.
Depending on the level of trust in your organization, there are two main ways to sample gossip:
- Get them from the people in the organization who are the Connectors, those who lie at the nexus points in your Social Network
- Provide staff with an anonymous postbox
OK, so I lied a bit, there is another and far more accurate way, but you aren’t going to like it.
Gossip is often the stuff that people believe to be true or likely but that they feel uncomfortable to tell management. This might mean they just have a hunch, but it may also mean that they know something but won’t say it for fear of being embarrassed or the retribution that may visit them if they come clean.
This is where Prediction Markets come in, and boy are you going to hate this!
If you ask how a project is going or what the sales forecast is, you are likely to get the sanitized and upbeat evaluation, but if people bid on a market – even with fake money, something different happens, and you are likely to get a far more accurate picture. Asking “how is the project going” gets you a CYA response, but if there was a pseudo-stockmarket in which people bid on a specific question such as “Project X will achieve Y milestone by Z date”, the results are likely to be far more accurate.
Share-value in the market rises or falls according to the insider knowledge and conviction of buyers, and if the identities of bidders are unknown, it represents the most accurate sampling of the organizational knowledge that one can get.
The downside is that questions must be highly specific and need to be somewhat Boolean in nature (Manski 2006), and people must not be able to game the system for personal gain which is perhaps an insurmountable obstacle since you could get the equivalent of “insider trading” in which a person might deliberately sabotage a project to gain benefit from the market.
However, some academics show evidence that “bear raids” and other attempts to game the market tend to be short-lived and self-correcting (Hanson, Oprea et al. 2006)
On the other hand, economists were the same geniuses that said this about the real stock market prior to the Global Financial Crises that appeared from the shadows and ate about $8 trillion.
I told you that you wouldn’t like it! – but let’s talk very quickly about what gossip is really, after all.
In a very real sense gossip is a manifestation of “cultural learning” (Baumeister, Zhang et al. 2004), it emerges under several distinct conditions that have to do with (amongst others) detection of social cheating, message incongruity, fragmented information scent, and power vacuums. It also manifests when there are threats and insufficient information available. Rumors often start because of simple information underload.
In the case of social cheating, gossip functions as the channel to communicate cheating and as the foundation for what has been termed “Costly Punishment” (Henrich, McElreath et al. 2006)
Gossip not only communicates efficiently and fast, but also delivers peer pressure to correct non-conformance with norms of behavior – and this is where there is both a problem and an opportunity.
If organizational goals and policies are out of step with the organization’s social norms, then gossip will “correct” behavior to satisfy the social norms rather than the organizational goal, and people will tend to obey the “ground rules” (Davenport and Prusak 1998; Stacey, Griffin et al. 2000) rather than the institutional rules, and this bears repeating – if the social rules are at odds with your institutional rules, the social rules will win almost every time.
Peer pressure is faster and stronger than institutional power, so it is wise to sample the gossip stream to see if there is significant divergence between the two and measure the results of any remedial interventions for signs of success. – bringing the two closer together puts peer dynamics into play to achieve organizational objectives, rather than undermining or corroding them.
At a different level, sampling the gossip-stream also gives a very good picture of what the organizational culture really is like and to what degree the organizational mission as communicated is infectious, sticky, and resilient – A poorly crafted mission statement simply won’t stand up to the test.
“Ba” and the Water-Cooler Dilemma
One of the foundational objectives of Knowledge Management as a practice is to create both built-environment and mental space that fosters and encourages innovation and knowledge diffusion. In his conceptualization of “Ba”, the mental and physical knowledge terrain (Nonaka and Konno 1999), Nonaka proposes the “water-cooler” phenomenon – that more often than not breakthroughs and acquisition of critical knowledge happens in the spaces between formal meetings and workareas rather than in them, that sometimes the water-cooler and other social spaces see more real work than the formal work areas.
While this is certainly a strong argument, what is also clear is that when left to their own devices, people tend to talk about sports, celebrities, and gossip more than they do about work, and that even when they talk about work it tends to be more about their idiot boss, the lazy workmates, or which members of staff are in a romance or likely to leave, than about work itself.
This leads to somewhat of a dilemma – creating “Ba”, areas and time in which staff can mingle, chat, and relax certainly does increase the likelihood of real innovation and productive spread of knowledge, but it also increases at a larger rate the amount of gossip and non-work related talk.
Gossip isn’t going to go away anytime soon and while it can be reduced both by disciplinary action and removing some of the information-gap causes, it can also be monitored as a good error-signal and mined for content to flag things that are miss-matches between organizational objectives and social rules. Gossip is also a reliable indicator of organizational culture, and can be a valuable source of information that can lead to beneficial intervention programs.
Gossip is something that is likely to increase if knowledge management is done well, but the upside is that it becomes a mechanism for good just as much as it does for serving the craving people have to know about the personal foibles of the powerful and who is sleeping with whom in the office.
Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management expert, holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra, and provides pro-bono consulting in Knowledge Management and IT Governance to various medical institutions.
Baumeister, R. F., L. Zhang, et al. (2004). “Gossip as cultural learning.” Review of General Psychology
Davenport, T., H. and L. Prusak (1998). Working knowledge: how organizations manage what they know. Boston MA, Harvard Business School Press.
Hanson, R., R. Oprea, et al. (2006). “Information aggregation and manipulation in an experimental market.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization
Henrich, J., R. McElreath, et al. (2006). “Costly punishment across human societies.” Science
Manski, C. F. (2006). “Interpreting the predictions of prediction markets.” Economics Letters
McAndrew, F. (2008). “Can Gossip Be Good?” Scientific American Mind
McAndrew, F. T. and M. A. Milenkovic (2002). “Of Tabloids and Family Secrets: The Evolutionary Psychology of Gossip1.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology
Nonaka, I. and N. Konno (1999). The concept of Ba : building a foundation for knowledge creation. Boston MA, Butterworth-Heinemann.
Stacey, R. D., D. Griffin, et al. (2000). Limits of systems thinking Complexity and management; fad or radical challenge to systems thinking. London, Routledge.