Office Politics or Gossip? Which one?

”Attacks can come in many forms: rumors, notes, and other ways. When we invest our time in small talk (gossip), we can only accomplish small things, if anything.”

Robin Dunbar, in his 1966 book “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language,” argues that the human tendency to gossip is, in fact, inherent from our primate forefathers. The first form of language was invented to keep one’s allies happy, in the form of grooming. But social grooming – an act in which social animals clean & maintain one another’s body or appearance – required lots of time and effort, so humans invented a cheaper and “ultra-efficient” way of grooming; vocal grooming. Gossip became the talk of the town since it worked on the principle “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” which humans loved.

The ‘gossip and grooming hypothesis’ was backed by Yuval Harari’s explanation of the neanderthal-homo sapien interbreeding. Harari states that it was the ability to gossip and the complexity of Sapiens’ language that they eventually settled the area Northward from Africa and drove back the other human species.
So, these theories and schools of thought suggest to some extent there may be a chance that gossip was partly the reason language was invented.

The terms ‘office politics’ and ‘office gossip’ are sometimes used interchangeably but are two different concepts that are more complex and consequential than you can imagine. Politics and gossip can take an ugly turn when they are done out of jealousy or intent of harm. Business Dictionary defines organizational politics as “the pursuit of individual agendas and self-interest in an organization without regard to their effect on the organization’s efforts to achieve its goals.”

In some cases, office gossip can be healthy if done without any ill-intentions; it sometimes even feels fun to participate in gossip. Office politics, however, is used to demean people and gain power or authority over others.

Office politics is typically fueled by gossip, so they’re not the same thing but exist in synergy. So, in and of itself, gossip isn’t bad but inevitably leads to politics in the workplace. Politics, as seen at a general level, has a particular objective of gaining an advantage while gossip can be a purely social activity.

Gossip is not Casual, it’s Informal

Informal networks of communication in an organization are called grapevine. Communication has a definite downward and upward path between managers and workers. Gossip, on the other hand, follows no particular flow or direction and doesn’t work according to hierarchy. Controlling the flow of information in this form of communication is hard.

Office politics can ruin workplaces that are fun, welcoming, and productive. The harsh truth is that politics and gossip exist in virtually all organizations. An office polluted with politics can’t facilitate a healthy work culture, where the smallest issues can turn into significant affairs and severely impact employee efficiency and confidence.

How it Affects a Company & Productivity

Would you ever be able to trust a person again who told you the news that later turned out to be a hoax? That’s one way how gossip can destroy trust. Something that might sound true just because of the way it is narrated, and might get spread fast without anyone thinking twice. Now, even your credibility is at stake, simply because you told a story you believed was true.

But that’s not where it stops; these ‘news’ are about co-workers. People might feel bad if they find out a particular story about them, which is not even real, is being spread around behind their backs. Gossip and the politics surrounding it can be about anything, personal or professional.

Most importantly though, the substantial toll that office politics takes is on the productivity and efficiency of employees. Such an office is left with only bits of productivity, found only in the workers who isolate themselves from such acts.

After a certain amount of time with politics prevailing in the workplace, organizations start witnessing a high employee turnover rate. Someone with a top professional-caliber will not like to work with employees who take a long duration-time off to have such conversations.

The primary concern is not making the workplace gossip free since that is nearly impossible. The aim should be to minimize the damage that it can do to the organization. Companies can do several things to deal with gossip and politics in a better way, such as:

  • Bringing transparency about the manner in which the issues are handled
  • Addressing issues as and when they happen , this attracts more responsibility and credibility to the company and leaders
  • Enact ‘zero-tolerance’ policies on workplace gossip
  • Teach employees proper communication skills and help them feel safe

How to deal with the urge to gossip

Nonetheless, the majority of people do indulge in such conversations without being able to break free. People sometimes get carried away when vested with power. Everyone is immediately subject to it, even if they don’t participate because people in all groups are interested in what’s being spread.

There are a lot of people who would instead not want to be part of office politics or gossip but wind up getting caught into it. If you genuinely want to avoid getting into a mess, you can use these handy tips:

Don’t vent personal or professional frustrations to someone you don’t fully trust
Learn to identify solutions and topics
Change the subject smoothly
Never repeat anything you’ve only heard from someone else

If none of them work, try this: LEAVE THE CONVERSATION!

But what to do about a coworker, who you’re close with, won’t stop gossiping?

  • Assess the nature of the gossip
  • Talk to your colleague
  • Transform gossip to conversation
  • Take documented action

Gossip and politics are significant, and they exist in your workplace, and the sooner you accept it, the more actively you can work around it. But just because they are true and real, doesn’t mean you have to participate in it, encourage it and let it drain all your energy and valuable productive time. Restricting your time and interaction with the ‘drama-divers’ and limiting your time together will help you to keep from being unintentionally sucked into the vortex. Focusing on having positive conversations will garner you gratitude from colleagues for being a drama-free member.