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The role of gossip in a social business

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The role of gossip in a social business

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I’ve written a few posts recently looking at the importance of transparency to a social business.  For instance, the following are five nice mechanisms for promoting transparency within a business:

  1. Remuneration transparency – the concept of making peoples salaries freely available has been around for a while, yet many still haven’t been quite brave enough to give it a go.  Doing so however removes any grumblings about either pay differentials or discriminatory structuring.
  2. Goal transparency – can you see the goals of both your organisation and your team?  Can other people do likewise?  I’ve written previously about the importance of involving employees in strategy making, but the chosen strategy and goals should then be made visible to all.
  3. Financial transparency – alongside this, the financial statements that underpin your organisation should also be viewable by all employees.  These should include any KPIs, trends or market comparisons so that everyone can see how the business is performing.
  4. Ethical transparency – at a number of organisations I’ve worked with there have been rumours and murmurings over the expense claims of senior executives.  This can emerge particularly when things aren’t going well.  The easy answer is to make all expenses freely available on your intranet.
  5. Information transparency – the final measure concerns information.  It should be freely available, whether it’s the minutes from a meeting or the social performance reviews you encourage staff to give one another.  You need to open up the decision making process so that all employees are aware of how important steps are arrived at.

When it comes to transparency, it might seem odd to regard gossip as being particularly useful, but a recent study from Stanford suggests otherwise.  The study suggests that gossip can perform two important roles, both in reforming miscreants and encouraging cooperation.

“Groups that allow their members to gossip,” says Matthew Feinberg, a Stanford University postdoctoral researcher, “sustain cooperation and deter selfishness better than those that don’t. And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracize untrustworthy members.

“While both of these behaviors can be misused, our findings suggest that they also serve very important functions for groups and society.”

The study asked participants to perform various tasks that would benefit the group.  They were then asked to do a second task with a new group, but not before they were allowed to gossip about their former colleagues.  Their new team mates could then choose to use that information to ostracize participants they believed would short change the group.

The study showed that gossiping therefore performed a useful feedback function that was used to determine collaborative behaviours.

“By removing defectors, more cooperative individuals can more freely invest in the public good without fear of exploitation,” the researchers say.

As if that wasn’t enough, the study also found that the mere presence of gossip amongst the group was enough to encourage those that had behaved badly to reform their ways and collaborate more in future.

“Those who do not reform their behavior,” says Robb Willer, an associate professor of sociology, “behaving selfishly despite the risk of gossip and ostracism, tended to be targeted by other group members who took pains to tell future group members about the person’s untrustworthy behavior.

“These future groups could then detect and exclude more selfish individuals, ensuring they could avoid being taken advantage of.”

The very threat of ostracism frequently deterred selfishness in the group. Even people who had been ostracized often contributed at higher levels when they returned to the group.

The risk to ones reputation therefore acts as a strong incentive to behave in such a way that ones reputation will be enhanced.  All of which is an interesting conclusion to reach.  Gossip traditionally comes with rather negative connotations, yet this study goes as far as to suggest that workplaces with no capacity for gossip are at a distinct disadvantage.

“Imagine a workplace,” Willer says, “where an employee’s performance could only be seen by individuals in the immediate setting, and those individuals could not pass on what they had seen to other co-workers or supervisors.

“Further, imagine a work setting where managers could not fire delinquent employees. It would be hard to deter workers from cutting corners ethically or freeloading, working only when they were directly supervised.”

Now of course, one could argue that this is purely a semantic thing, and what one might regard as gossip might be another persons information sharing, but however you refer to such behaviour, the researchers believe it is fundamental to human nature.

People pass on information about how others behave in workplaces, student workgroups, business and political coalitions, on the Internet, in volunteer organizations and beyond. While much of this behavior may be undesirable and malicious, a lot of it is critical to deterring selfishness and maintaining social order in groups.

“I think it does speak to the mechanisms that keep people behaving honestly and generously in many settings and, where behavior is entirely anonymous, helps explain when they don’t,” Willer says.

So maybe a good bit of gossip is crucially important to any social business.

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