Can Office Gossip Work in Your Favor?

Sometimes water cooler prattle can be productive.

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Ritika Trikha.jpg
Ritika Trikha
Gossip gets a bad rap. But the truth is there's a difference between malicious gossip and gossip for the good of humanity (or the office).

"Gossip has been selected by evolution as a way to hold large human groups together," according to Meredith F. Small, a professor of anthropology at Cornell University who spoke with primatologist Robin Dunbar for an article in LiveScience. According to Dunbar, we are evolutionarily designed to judge and talk about others.

Of course, there's a fine line between good and bad gossip. While good gossip can promote camaraderie and accountability for the team, bad gossip can ostracize people and hurt your own credibility in the process. However, if you're smart about it, you can reap the benefits that office gossip brings while still maintaining a great professional reputation. Here are three important things to note:

1. "Prosocial" gossip can hold colleagues accountable. One recent study at the University of California, Berkeley found that "prosocial" gossip is actually necessary for the good of humanity. Specifically at the office, it can boost productivity. Prosocial gossip is well-intentioned, sincere, and truthful.

In other words, it can be a way to police a bad situation and warn other colleagues about poor behavior or under-performance at work. And, after all, no one wants to be the subject of gossip around the water cooler.

One example of this is "when women in an office spread the word about a male colleague who has a history of pursuing women purely for the thrill of the chase," according to an article on WebMD about prosocial gossip. This type of gossip can produce a constructive result.

However, if you feel that a piece of valuable information about a colleague's performance, behavior, or another workplace event can benefit the whole group, then it may warrant sharing it with a confidant. Make sure it's not malicious. And make sure you confirm its validity.

(iStockPhoto) 2. Gossip offers therapeutic qualities. The study also found that gossip can be a stress reliever. UC Berkeley's study measured the heart rate of folks who observed someone else do something bad. The researchers found that people who were able to tell someone else about the poor behavior they witnessed calmed down. It quieted their frustration about what they saw. Telling someone else about poor behavior (as long as it's not malicious) has therapeutic effects.

Still, tread lightly. Your best bet is not to talk badly about other colleagues at work unless it truly is better for the larger group (aka prosocial gossip). You can still retain some of the therapeutic benefits of gossip if you discuss your work events with someone outside of work, unrelated to your professional environment.

3. However, malicious gossip will likely backfire. By talking poorly behind someone's back at work about minor irritations and useless gossip, you risk damaging your own reputation in the process. "While people might agree with you outwardly, and even chime in with their own complaints about the person you're gossiping about, you've actually diminished yourself and become less trustworthy in their eyes," says Adrian McIntyre, a UC Berkeley professor who is unrelated to the study mentioned above.

Who knows what you might be saying about your fellow gossiper in another time and place—with another gossipmonger?

Although gossip can be a tempting outlet to unleash your workplace frustrations, in most cases, it's better to step away and simply avoid participating in it. Think about this: Would telling your colleague whatever you have to say really matter in the long-run?

Ritika Trikha is a writer for CareerBliss, an online career community dedicated to helping people find happiness in the workplace. Check out CareerBliss for millions of job listings, company reviews, and salary information.