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A crucial characteristic of a competent engineer is his observation capability.
This is not necessarily confined to technical systems and non-living objects but covers human behavior as well.
As a matter of fact, you don’t do very well in your career if you aren’t capable of understanding human psychology to some extent and aren’t a good observer of patterns in human mannerisms, regardless of the technical skill set you may possess.
Human behavior in competitive social networks will be the context for the following short treatise, which wants to illustrate a certain type of informal communication within those environments.
Going to lunch with your co-workers is an important catalyst to establish your professional network, and a source of information that must not be underestimated.
When you know the persons on your lunch-table well, the spectrum of one’s daily conversations can range from pure technical talk to just mundane chit-chat.
And at times, it can turn into profound debates about the ambitions, the behavior and the affairs of other (usually absent) members of the group – also known as “organizational gossip”.
The term gossip by itself is pretty notorious, and “gossiping” is a quite distinctive human habit.
Everyone who works in larger corporations could name right off the bat co-workers who have a propensity to engage in this activity, and everyone would confirm that there are co-workers who are undoubtedly more interesting to gossip about.
And if you make an attempt to identify a pattern in this: the social status of the gossip object in the respective organization is obviously the key factor in the equation, but there seem to exist other significant parameters as well.
Nonetheless, gossip is frowned upon in a professional environment, so these sorts of interactions take place in a largely subtle manner – when they take place.
Questions to discuss
Below I want to discuss two questions, and make a short systematic (yet not scientific) approach to the topic:
- why there exists any gossip at all as a human habit
- are there common characteristics about those people who were gossiped about?
I am of course not a specialist in behavior analysis but an engineer, so aside from my personal experience I’ve integrated in this text I made the mandatory research about this subject-matter beforehand.
If I missed or misinterpreted a point, I would be glad if you drop a comment.
The used references you can find at the bottom of this blog-post, too.
2. Reasons for gossip
The basic idea and my starting point is that gossip is not inherently a bad thing.
It serves an important social function (this is backed up by science), though it is certainly not always positive communication – it can be highly negative as well1.
1 and in seldom cases also be neutral; however, neutral chit-chat is not gossip by definition – workplace gossip is behavior evaluation of a co-worker not present at the moment.
People in general strive for a certain position in the dominance hierarchy, therefore they are interested in comprehending the structure of their actual social environment in order to increase their overall social resources.
So even negative gossip is not necessarily bad (exceptions see below) – it can help to reinforce group-norms and standards which had been violated by certain group members.
That is in accordance with the research results of evolutionary biologists. Gossip can be a means to spread valuable information within a collective. One can get an idea about the social bargains and the general code of behavior within the group, so she has a chance to modify what is deemed as social unacceptable.
If she’s involved in gossip, it is a statement about her standing in the group. And if she participates, she will signal her commitment to this group.
Self-serving (malicious) gossip
Think about your workplace for a second. There is surely that one colleague be known for her astounding up-to-dateness on information about personal affairs of her co-workers and a strong tendency to gossip, generating a kind of uneasiness in her more conscious peers as soon as she opens her mouth.
This sort of talk serves no purpose whatsoever. Pathetic chit-chat about co-workers is not just negative, but genuinely negative gossip.
It is for the most part self-serving and narcissistic. Either way, no one benefits, neither the team nor anyone else in the corporation.
Reasons for such behavior are not so hard to guess: it can be envy, boredom, or just attention-seeking. When the affairs and private matters of colleagues are concerned, people who are otherwise lazy and slow-thinkers seem capable of staggering feats of logical thinking.
Fortunately, that sort of behavior is rather the exception and the intentions fairly easy to decipher. Such colleagues are generally unpopular and usually avoided due to their overall irritating attitude.
3. Targets for gossip
Creating this article reminded me of my childhood days where we often listened to the popular “Grimms’ Fairy Tales”, or watched one of the animated fairy-tale movies on TV.
So it is obvious that we encounter status and appearance from early on in childhood, and the moral content of such fairy-tale stories is part of the socialization process to which everyone is exposed to2.
2 of course the phenomenon of a dominance hierarchy and social status is also hard-wired in the ancient part of our brain
After school, social hierarchies start to grow more and more subtle and intricate, and without awareness and knowledge it can be hard at times to maneuver in them properly.
By discussing organizational gossip in a competitive environment, one must acknowledge that not only the (more or less easily discernible) status of a gossip object is important.
The particular branch of the company, its inner structure (e.g. male or female dominated), and at the bottom end team and group boundaries are decisive factors for the occurrence of gossip just as well.
So, what would be an eligible target to gossip about in a, say, big engineering company which operates on a large scale on the free market?
Since the company-departments are usually not in mutual competition and every team contributes to a specific goal or well-defined project, it is of utmost importance to have a reliable network inside one’s own team to maximize one’s contributions to the results.
That is a necessary condition and the bare minimum to begin with because nobody respects a co-worker who is ineffective or not a team-player. Here, negative gossip could be a corrective factor.
It makes sense that no one wants to be associated with this kind of a person in order not to be suspected himself as an ineffective employee, so any gossip at all about such low-status co-workers would be rather an exception, especially if they are not part of one’s own team.
At the end of the day, knowing (or even worse being friend with) such low-status people would reflect negative light on myself.
A large body of evidence and experience shows that the lower the status of a fellow employee in the overall organizational network, the more likely she is being subjected to negative gossip.
Of course negative gossip is usually more interesting because it is rather a rare event (many people enjoy for that matter negative gossip about celebrities).
‘Negative gossip in organizational networks is concentrated
on a small number of objects (“scapegoats”).’ [Web-Reference 2]
Things are entirely different with people who are perceived as effective and popular. I would prefer to be associated with such people, and so does everyone else. And what could be a convenient way to show off with a connection to that person? Talk about her and her deeds positively as if she is a good acquaintance of mine, what suggests belonging to the object’s social circle.
Here in particular it is not so much confined to team boundaries, but stretches over the whole company. We want to be associated with the head of the department, the team leader, or ideally the CEO.
The balance between competition and co-operation is a recurring theme in big corporations and in human societies in general.
According to evolutionary biologists, language is first and foremost an instrument for manipulation.
That is essentially true for a phenomenon called gossip, which can enforce group standards and spreads valuable information within a group. But it can also be a means for self-promotion, boasting about connections to high-status persons through positive talk.
It is critical to get a good understanding of this not to fall victim of manipulation and negative gossip yourself and to climb up the company ladder – if that is your goal.
Chapter 10, page 318: Gossip’s Grip
Chapter 9, page 288: Personalities
2. Fairy Tales – The Brothers Grimm, Everyman’s Library 1906
- Time: The Science Behind Why People Gossip
- Who are the objects of positive and negative gossip at work?
- Are we truly wicked when gossiping at work?
Featured image: Distortion of a “loud typography” design