Gossips and Grapevines
Recently, an administrator told me something “on the q.t.” and swore me to secrecy. Naturally, by the time I returned to the laboratory everyone was talking about it. And when I denied any knowledge of it, everyone laughed heartily. It’s amazing how quickly gossip and rumors spread.
Gossip can be malicious. I’ll hear about affairs, stealing, or drunkenness. By the time it gets to me, it’s forensic, usually to explain why someone resigned without notice to seek other opportunities. This kind of character assassination is only intended to inflate the speaker as a person with “secret knowledge.” It is harmful, hurtful, and always unproductive.
But gossip is also a symptom of fear and uncertainty about change. “Well, you know what I heard...” it begins and ends with the plausible or implausible. Wild guesses are enabled by a lack of timely and honest communication by management and fueled by distrust in answers given to direct questions. When “Why are we doing this?” is met by glazed stares, gossips quickly fill in the blanks.
According to one survey cited in the Los Angeles Times, the rumor mill is the mainstay in 63% of companies, however, and while some employees think gossiping is a waste of resources, many experts believe the opposite. “Gossip can help staff members deal with anxiety and uncertainty, especially when upper management withholds information during times of crisis,” concludes the article.
Career planner and author Dawn Rosenberg McKay, writing on About, agrees. “In many workplaces information isn't very forthcoming. The office grapevine is the only conduit for carrying important news,” she writes. She cautions against believing everything -- some gossip is just false -- and also the “telephone effect” that mangles a story into the unrecognizable.
Listening to the grapevine can give management a sense of how effective their “open door” policy is, like an echo. Gossips will persist, but most people won’t engage if they hear the truth straight from the top when they ask. At least, that’s what I heard in the cafeteria.
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