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Earnings And Yearnings: How to Be a Good Gossip

Malicious talk could destroy your (or someone else's) career. And yet a more nuanced use of chitchat is essential to getting ahead.

Things were not going well for the teachers at Costen Elementary. They had a new, no-nonsense principal whom they found to be bullying and unsympathetic. The teachers lodged complaints with the school district's central office and waited for the principal to be censured. Instead, she was vindicated. With little recourse left, the teachers turned to each other, and they spent large chunks of time gossiping about the principal. "The teachers did not have formal power," says Timothy Hallett, a sociologist at Indiana University who studied the teachers at Costen for two years. "The content of their gossip was negative, but it served to empower them. It was a weapon of the weak." It kept their spirits up and enabled them to cope with a tough situation.

Gossip gets a bad rap that's not entirely unjustified—such unsanctioned talk about others can have serious consequences for targets and dishers. "At the extreme, gossip can ruin a person's life," says Judith Sills, a Philadelphia psychologist who consults on workplace issues.

But gossip has positive effects, too—bringing colleagues together and serving as a source of information for employees who otherwise aren't getting any. Here's a guide to reaping the benefits of sharing information while minimizing the damage to yourself and others.

Think positive.

It can feel downright exhilarating to tell a few office pals about how your rival crashed and burned in a meeting with a major client. But gossip is the spread of any sort of unsanctioned, informal information—it doesn't have to be negative. "The practice of gossiping, regardless of whether the content is positive or negative, can create some bonding," Hallett says.

So if you want to get the warm and cozy social side effects of gossip without the risks of alienating others, try spreading a tidbit that isn't spiteful: "I heard Bob was up all night working on his presentation," or, "Apparently Sandra landed a huge new client. No surprise there; she's so sharp." Sure, it might not initially be as satisfying as giving up dirt, but it will create a source of solidarity between you and your colleagues, especially when your glowing words get back to Bob or Sandra.

Protect yourself.

"A basic rule in today's world is: Don't say anything that you wouldn't want to end up on Twitter or Facebook," says Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist based in New York and the founder of Dattner Consulting, which helps companies manage social and psychological dynamics in the workplace. If you must be negative, be smart not only about what you say but also how you say it.

Office gossip, Hallett says, tends to be more nuanced and indirect than the playground form. But the people you're gossiping about may have formal authority over you, which means that spreading secrets could put your job in jeopardy.

Hallett found that some of the teachers in his study would imply criticism of their current principal by speaking positively about her predecessor. "When I first started here, in 1989," one teacher said, "It was so calm, and you could teach; no one was constantly looking over your shoulder." That strategy can work in any office. Your message will get across, and so will your sense of discretion.

Protect your friends.

Knowing how office gossip works—that it's likely to involve sarcasm and indirect, nuanced comments—is the best way to defend against it. If someone makes an oblique remark about a friend or a colleague you respect, counter it by forcing that person to be direct—for instance, ask "What did you mean by that?" Often, the would-be reputation-trasher will shy away because she doesn't want to fully commit to the takedown, Hallett says.

Or, you can counter with a positive evaluation. If a colleague slams your friend's report, counter with: "Really? I thought it was great." Whatever approach you choose, act fast. "If there's a negative evaluation out there and you don't believe in it, you need to challenge it quickly," Hallett says. "Once a negative evaluation is seconded, it's very hard to reverse the wave of conformity."

Pay attention.

Even if perpetrating gossip makes you feel icky, it's crucial to keep an ear open to what other people are buzzing about. Knowing what's being said about colleagues can reveal the dynamics at play in an office and give you a sense of who holds informal power. (A loyal assistant who has been with the boss for years may be very influential.)

Making small talk with people in different departments and joining water-cooler sessions can also clue you into important behind-the-scenes developments. "In an environment where communication is very, very poor, i.e., most corporations, gossip is what substitutes for actual information," Sills says. "It can give you a heads up." Those whisperings about a coming merger might be wrong, but if they aren't, at least you've had a chance to polish your résumé.

Communicate proactively.

If you're in a position of power or authority in the office, you're likely a frequent target of gossip. Don't bother trying to create a "gossip-free workplace"—there will never be such a thing. What you should do is talk as directly as you can with your employees about plans and changes under way. "Gossip loves a vacuum," Dattner says. During times of struggle or transition, when gossip is likely to be most virulent, managers have a tendency to adopt a bunker mentality. That's the exactly wrong instinct, Sills says. Instead, managers should be extremely proactive about communicating, even if it just means weekly emails stating: Here's where we are, here's what you've heard, here's what we're still trying to figure out. "That behavior," Sills says, "is the gossip medicine." —Emily Anthes

The Golden Dish

Ace financial reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin gives PT a juicy tidbit.

Sorkin, author of Too Big To Fail, a history of the bank bailout, says that gossip is the coin of the realm on Wall Street. "Investment bankers and traders are constantly looking for an 'information edge' and they often get it by gossiping. I can't begin to count how many mega-mergers have been instigated by a bit of gossip." Case in point: Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch made a play for Dow Jones—owner of the Wall Street Journal—after hearing that a banker and Dow Jones employee had dished about how the company's controlling family might be willing to sell, Sorkin says. It turns out they were.