Gossip heard through the office grapevine may actually benefit organizations more than it hurts them, new research has found. That’s because, even though nearly 15 percent of all emails could be characterized as gossip, research found those emails held a valuable communication purpose within the organization.
To arrive at these findings, Eric Gilbert, assistant professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech University, examined 600,000 emails released in the aftermath of Enron's collapse. For the research, gossip was defined as messages containing information about people not among the recipients of the email.
"Gossip gets a bad rap," said Gilbert, an expert in social computing who runs the Comp.Social Lab at Georgia Tech. "When you say 'gossip,' most people immediately have a negative interpretation, but it’s actually a very important form of communication. Even tiny bits of information, like 'Eric said he’d be late for this meeting,' add up; after just a few of those messages, you start to get an impression that Eric is a late person. Gossip is generally how we know what we know about each other, and for this study, we viewed it simply as a means to share social information."
Tanushree Mitra, a Ph.D. student who worked with Gilbert on the research, described the importance of gossip as going beyond a means to share information.
"There is a rich literature in anthropology and sociology on the universality and utility of gossip among human social groups," Mitra said. "A recent survey of that literature summarized gossip as having four main purposes: information, entertainment, intimacy and influence. We found evidence of all those categories in the Enron emails, relating to both business and personal relationships."
Beyond finding the percentage of emails that could be considered gossip, Gilbert and Mitra also found that all levels of an organization gossip in emails. The researchers found that rank-and-file employees were most likely to gossip in emails, followed by vice presidents and directors. Although the example of Enron, whose financial collapse made it infamous, may seem to be different from other companies, Gilbert said perceived differences may not be as pronounced.
"Enron certainly had what could be called a 'cowboy culture,' but I suspect the way they behaved internally to each other did not differ significantly from most other corporations," Gilbert said. "I was a little surprised that it turned out to be almost 15 percent."
These finding were published in the paper "Have You Heard? How Gossip Flows Through Workplace Email."
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