The Surprising Upside of Office Gossip

A chatty coworker’s willingness to share office secrets might make you a better employee.

coworkers-gossiping
Photo by Jamie Grill/Getty Images

If you hang out by the coffee machine at work, you’re bound to pick up some office gossip. While it’s never a good practice to spread information—positive or negative—about others without their permission, hearing stories or gossip might have some positive effects on your own well-being. In fact, new research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that being on the receiving end of gossip could promote self-reflection and growth.



To determine the benefits, researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands conducted two studies. In the first, 178 university students were asked to recall and write about an incident when they received positive or negative gossip about another person. Then, they were given a series of statements that measured the self-improvement value (the desire to push yourself to be better), self-promotion value (a feeling of pride in yourself), and self-protection value (the instinct to shield yourself) of the gossip. After analysis, researchers found that positive gossip correlated to self-improvement, whereas negative gossip correlated to heightened self-promotion and protection.

“Hearing positive stories about others may be informative, because they suggest ways to improve oneself," lead researcher Elena Martinescu said in a statement. "Hearing negative gossip may be flattering, because it suggests that others (the gossip target) may function less well than we do. However, negative gossip may also be threatening to the self, because it suggests a malign social environment in which one may easily fall victim to negative treatments."

In the second study, 121 students were placed in a scenario, and manipulated to focus on mastering a skill or outperforming others in the workplace. They were then told positive or negative gossip about another coworker. Those who had been primed to really learn the skill well found the positive gossip helpful and saw it as a tool to become more competent at their jobs, whereas those who were primed to outperform others found the positive gossip threatening. On the flip side, negative gossip increased self-promotion because it offered a mode of comparison that allowed the students to take pride in their work. Negative gossip also made both goal-oriented groups more alert and self-protective, likely out of fear of being the subject of negative gossip in the future.

What’s more, researchers saw a difference between men and women’s reaction to gossip.

"Women who receive negative gossip experience higher self-protection concerns possibly because they believe they might experience a similar fate as the person being the target of the gossip, while men who receive positive gossip experience higher fear, perhaps because upward social comparisons with competitors are threatening," said Martinescu.

Overall, both positive and negative gossip can have a motivating effect. Positive gossip pushes individuals towards self-improvement and growth, while negative gossip forces us to look inward and be more alert and careful about our own behavior, and also take pride in our skills by comparison. As long as you aren’t spreading it around the office, feel free to listen in every now and then.