I wrote last year about a Stanford study exploring the role of gossip in the workplace. 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.”
Of course, gossip and rumors aren’t always positive, far from it. They can spread misinformation or help with the bullying of a colleague.
A recent study set out to explore the motivations of employees who gossip about their colleagues. It suggests that the primary reason for such behavior is to enact a kind of revenge on their colleague or their employer.
This is typically because they feel scorned in some way by their colleague or employer, with a violation of mutual obligations the number one reason. For instance, if the employee feels that their employer hasn’t given them a fair chance to earn a bonus or promotion, they are more inclined to start spreading nefarious rumors.
Tellingly, an employee scorned didn’t seem overly concerned if their rumor wasn’t particularly plausible, which only goes to emphasize just how piqued they must be.
The importance of fairness
Last year Ilookedat some research that was exploring the topic of fairness in the workplace and it came to equally telling results. The research revealed that we’re often quite happy to accept a degree of hierarchy at work so long as the hierarchy treats people fairly.
A secondstudysuggests that the fairness of the organization is especially important when we expect employees to collaborate closely with one another. It revealed that when employees believe there is a strong sense of ‘procedural justice’ in their organization, their collaborative efforts are greatly enhanced.
Interestingly, when employees felt their workplace was a broadly unfair place, they would increasingly take an eye for an eye approach to their work. This would often manifest itself in spreading malicious rumors about colleagues, with the belief that damaging the firm that is harming them will redress the balance somewhat.
It’s pretty clear therefore that a fair and just workplace is highly desirable. That doesn’t mean creating one is easy however.
A study published last year found that making sure rules and procedures are abided by to provide a fair and just workplace comes at a significant mental cost for managers. What’s more, the research suggests that this has the knock-on effect of reducing our willpower and self-control, which in turn can often lead to negative behaviors emerging in both the managers and their team.
A second study echoed this challenging conclusion. It emerged that when the bosses were actively monitoring fairness in the workplace and ensuring that it took place found themselves worn down both mentally and emotionally. This resulted in less cooperative behavior the following day, and even less social engagement with colleagues.
“Structured, rule-bound fairness, known as procedural justice, is a double-edged sword for managers,”said Professor Russell Johnson of the Michigan State University business school.“While beneficial for their employees and the organization, it’s an especially draining activity for managers. In fact, we found it had negative effects for managers that spilled over to the next workday.
A fair and equitable workplace therefore comes at a distinct cost to the energy levels of managers. Something that we should certainly bare in mind.