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Can Office Gossip Be Productive?

We hide it, deny it and sometimes feel bad about it. Still, gossip slithers into most conversations at home and work. A Stanford University study, though, found that “good gossip” and ostracizing behavior are positive. Benefits include increased group cooperation and  productivity.

Researchers noted that participants often warned others about a selfish member’s behavior or spread good gossip about someone. Subsequently, group members chose to work with more cooperative members, leaving the self-serving shunned. Not only would the outcast then change his or her ways, but “fearing these consequences increased everyone’s productivity,” says study co-author Matthew Feinberg, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Still think productive gossip exists only on well-scripted reality shows? Feinberg asks managers to weigh how long it takes to “out” selfish behavior against the ensuing productivity. Frank McAndrew, a psychology professor at Knox College adds, “Good gossip is not about frequency, but the threat of being gossiped about.”

Weaving good gossip into your company’s culture is easy. Unless managers intercede, groups will naturally self-regulate. Feinberg also proposes hiring employees with characteristics like kindness, generosity and trustworthiness, because these folks usually initiate good gossip. McAndrew adds, “Even idle gossip is fun and strengthens social connections. It increases morale and may reduce employee turnover, which increases productivity.”

Good gossip, though, can turn toxic. The team’s best interests are subjective; employees can misinterpret rules, and sometimes what is best for the company differs from what is best for the team (like that employee who works around the clock). Ideally, team members would self-police unfair gossip, but managers should intervene if gossip escalates to bullying.

The takeaway: Encourage gossip in your company… as long as it’s good.

Speaking of social connections, should you hang out with co-workers outside the office? Check out the pros and cons involved.

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