Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Business of Boss Bashing

Office gossip: Learn when to step in and when to
let it slide.

It happens in the cubicle corners of every office. Cliques of
coworkers gather to trade complaints and gossip about the incompetence of
the boss.

Not to worry. Such stuff is usually harmless, says a leading
organizational psychologist. It alleviates subordinates' sense of
helplessness and strengthens bonds among colleagues. Nevertheless, when
the gossip gets nasty, it may be time to intervene.

Employees often snipe about their superiors to gain control over
their powerless situation, says Massachusetts psychologist Harry
Levinson, Ph.D. Bosses have not only the authority to evaluate, promote,
and demote, but also the ultimate say about work hours, dress codes, and
other policies affecting employees' lives.

Gossip also serves to build friendships with other coworkers. In
this common "us against them" scenario, Levinson says, colleagues do much
as they did with their siblings: build bonds of affection by criticizing
the boss's (mom's) actions or personality.

A boss's best strategy is to let office rumors slide, says Robert
A. Bar-on, Ph.D., professor of managerial policy and organization at
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "Trying to refute gossip actually gives
it more credence."

But if negative gossip wrongly accuses superiors of not doing their
jobs, suggests they are having affairs with subordinates, or provokes
employees to gang up on their superiors, a boss needs to step in. Such
talk can hinder communication and productivity in the office, says Jack
Thompson, Ph.D., a corporate psychologist In Santa Rosa,

Then the best approach is to attack the source. Private one-to-one
conversations with the gossiping perpetrators usually squelch further
rumors and prevent workplace mutiny.

But if the gossip is true, a change in bosses' workplace behavior
or personal life may be in order. Says Bar-on: "The worst thing is to see
people of authority as hypocrites, saying 'do as I say and not as I

Actually, the hardest thing may be keeping an ear peeled at all
times for whatever problems may arise. But as the traditional vertical
organization gradually gives way to a more open management style, younger
bosses may have the edge on that. Besides, such a shift may even do away
altogether with the type of corporate culture that breeds such
powerlessness in the first place.