Opposable thumbs are pretty terrific, but director of Hardwired Humans, Andrew O’Keeffe says our vocal capability is the evolutionary development that really sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. So how can you take advantage of that and make office gossip a positive thing?
Citing Professor Robin Dunbar, O’Keefe says that while chimpanzees spend hours each day grooming each other to cement their social bonds, humans achieve the same bonding through social chit-chat, or office gossip.
“Our natural instinct to gossip is part of being human. It’s overwhelmingly a very pro-social behaviour,” says Andrew O’Keeffe.
Gossip and bonding
As legendary chimpanzee researcher Dr Jane Goodall observed, “Two chimps cannot possibly bond if they’ve spent no time grooming.”
Similarly, if colleagues talk only about tasks, the quality of their relationships will suffer; we can only be bonded through chit-chat and office gossip.
This is observed when a well-bonded team goes out for coffee or lunch; the bulk of the conversation will be about interests, activities and what’s going on around the organisation.
For a group to be well-bonded, the percentage of chit-chat needs to be at least 60-70 per cent, according to Dunbar’s research. Even 50 per cent is not constructive enough to create true camaraderie.
It’s critical that every team has a bonding ritual. Some teams might regularly go for coffee or go out for lunch. We need to be in that setting to engage in bonding. And we need to have these rituals which allow people to bond.
“Bonding sessions are as critical as team meetings – and missing out on team meetings is not acceptable,” says O’Keeffe.
“My suggestion to leaders is that once you have decided on the right way to bond with your team, one that everyone can reasonably participate in, then you should strongly encourage everyone to join in. Team dynamics are affected if even one person opts out.”
Gossip and rumour
The main reason rumours get started in professional life and office gossip occurs is because people out of the loop are trying to make sense of things.
“There are at least four big reasons why we engage in rumour: making sense of the world, working out how it affects us, reassurance and social currency (alliances, knowledge, status).
“We’re less anxious about something negative if we understand it. If something bad is happening and we know what it is and why it’s happening, there’s actually less need for rumour,” he says.
How to minimise rumour during change
You only have one reputation; don’t damage your credibility with spin or standard-issue impersonal communications. O’Keeffe’s five steps to counter rumour during periods of upheaval are:
- Make the initial explanation entirely plausible – even if it’s bad news
- Don’t use “spin” – as “spin” is a mismatch between how people feel and what they are being told
- Establish a rhythm of communication with staff – a regular pattern
- Use multiple platforms but with a preference for face-to-face meetings, in smaller groups
- Tap into the rumour mill so you can respond.
“Most importantly, try not to let executives win with the argument ‘if there is no news we don’t need to communicate’. If communication slows or stops, then that fuels a new round of rumours as people make up a story in their effort to understand.”
O’Keeffe says gossip is an overwhelmingly positive social practice and using simple tools like bonding rituals can harness this very human compulsion and improve personal effectiveness and HR practices.