Strategic uses for office gossip

Aug 2, 2012 at 3:42 p.m. ET

We spend most of our lives at the office or at work-related functions. A natural part of groups is gossip, and it often leads to unpleasant results. However, we think office gossip can be a powerful, positive force if you know when and how to use it.

Women gossiping in office

Gossip is tough to deal with at the office. It can be a slippery slope: One minute you are venting to a trusted co-worker and the next minute someone you don't trust overhears a snippet of your conversation — the panic sets in quickly. However, it is important to keep in mind that office gossip is both healthy and strategic when viewed within the right context and situation. Even though office gossip gets a bad reputation, many experts encourage it within limits.

Researchers at Indiana University recently completed a study that found office gossip "provides insight into workplace politics and power." The key is to know who to gossip with and when and where to chat. Don't make it obvious you are engaged in conversations that might make you look bad. Head out to lunch with co-workers you trust and share your opinions about the individual or situation you want to discuss. Dr. Timothy Hallett, assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University, says office gossip "can be a valuable weapon and outlet for an already frustrated workforce."

A gateway to the top

Isolate individuals who are higher up than you are and just listen to them complain or vent. Try not to gossip in return but remain interested. You want to build trust with someone who likely has access to more information than you do. Keep whatever information you learn to yourself. If the individual above you sees, over time, that you are great at keeping things quiet, he or she will trust you with more information. In turn, this information can give you power and added awareness of the company and its employees.

Know the limit: Don't seek out your boss or other superiors for gossip. Put yourself in situations where he or she may feel more comfortable talking, like having drinks after work. Never make it look like you are prying for information.

Build alliances

Gossip clearly bonds co-workers who share the same opinions and perspectives. The key is to bring individuals together who can help alleviate your stress at work by empathizing with your situation as well as supporting you in the office. If you have three or four co-workers who dislike the same people, it will be easier to vent when you need to and ask for advice when you need solutions.

Know the limit: Don't gossip with co-workers and colleagues you don't consider trusted friends. If you don't have any friends at work, it might be time to consider a new employer.

Improve your team's morale

Office gossip usually brings morale to a negative place but if you use it correctly it can be a powerful force for good. Share promotion strategies and office norms to help new individuals become better adjusted with the work culture. For example, if your office is big on potlucks and holiday parties, share positive stories of co-workers at those events.

Know the limit: Don't share embarrassing stories. It's unprofessional and unappreciated to share someone else's bad memories.

Tell us

How have you strategically used office gossip at work? Share in the comments below!

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