I was surprised to read an article in Psychology Today discussing the 5 benefits of gossip. While the author stopped just shy of advocating that we gossip frequently, she found more than a silver lining in the cancerous activity – she says that it has actual benefit.
As a believer in the utter destruction that talking behind another’s back causes, I want to challenge each of the five benefits the author mentions. The overriding reason not to talk behind another’s back is that gossip breaks trust with the person you are talking about.
Below are the author’s five points with my rebuttal.
It gets out what’s really bugging you
It is true that talking to someone else is like a sounding board, bouncing ideas off them like a physicist writing on a white board.
If you are solving business problems such as how to logistically deliver a product quicker to your client, we do need collaboration for that type of brainstorming.
But when the problem you are brainstorming about is how to deal with another person, you have just forgotten that that other person is a person. Rather, you are treating them like an object to fix, neglecting that they have needs and insecurities, not aware that they would be offended that this conversation is occurring.
Instead of bouncing ideas of how to handle that person off a third person, it is always better to get those ideas directly from the person. Talk to them about what is really bugging you.
This will help you understand their perspective, why they do the thing they do that annoys you, and helps you walk a mile in their shoes. In the process, you are building trust instead of breaking trust.
It encourages cooperation
By this, the author means that gossip allows people who are like-minded to find each other; that like (and presumably “good”) people will congregate and cooperate against the “bad” (she calls them “selfish”) people being talked about.
I suggest that the “good” people cooperating in this scenario are participating in a bad activity that destroys trust in the organization.
Talking about someone behind their back builds personal armies that pit one side against another. Since you are only talking about my perspective without the wisdom and reality of the perspective of that third person, I am spreading misinformation and contempt against someone who we all need to work well with.
Healthy organizations have everyone working on the same team toward unified goals. Cooperating against the “selfish people” ensures that we will not work well together to meet our company initiatives.
It relieves stress
Voicing your frustration does relieve stress.
I believe that God gave us stress with frustration specifically so that we would use that energy to solve the problem. When I instead voice my frustration to someone else in a complaint or gossip, I release that energy that could’ve otherwise been channeled into problem solving.
I feel better, but nothing is solved. I will be just as upset and stressed tomorrow when the situation happens again, because I didn’t fix the problem.
It fosters self-improvement
The author quotes a study from Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that states “when people know others may gossip about them, they are more likely to learn from a bad experience and reform their behavior by cooperating more in future group settings.”
My experience is that people seldom improve when they are gossiped about.
First, they typically hear only snippets of the gossip and therefore don’t know exactly what to improve.
Secondly, when we are attacked (and gossip is an attack, even if not an intentional one), our fight-or-flight response kicks in, and we tend to go into defensive mode.
Extremely mature people may be able to calm the amygdala and consider how to improve; but most people instead defend and reject the suggestions.
It is passive-aggressive to indirectly try to improve someone. We need to grow some balls and talk to the person directly if we want a healthy organization.
It provides a reality check
The author quotes a clinical psychologist who says “If you want to know whether someone else is having a similar experience [with the third person], you can simply ask in a non-accusatory manner whether anyone else has experienced the same phenomenon. That way, you’re not actually dissing the person, you’re simply inquiring.”
I can just see sweet Southern Belles saying “bless their heart” during this inquiry.
This inquiry always becomes more about building your army against the person. Better advise is given by Jesus (Matthew 18:15-16): “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”
So first, talk to the person directly. Usually, that will fix it.
If it does not fix it, go back to the person and say “I am still having this issue. Let’s bring in a third person to help us mediate through this.”
Do not first prepare your “witnesses” of how the person has wronged you – that is building up your army again and breaks trust with the person. Rather, just bring them in as an unbiased mediator.
Gossip has no real benefits. It always destroys trust. True leaders find ways to completely eliminate gossip and replace it with a culture of honor.
You can read more about creating a healthy organization in oureBook, Chief Exhausted Officer: changes to restore a CEO’s energy.