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Reinstating Gossip

In “Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari (2014), readers are reminded that three species of humans existed 50,000 years ago, namely the Sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans. The Homo Sapiens prevailed and became the one and only human species. This feat was apparently made possible by the development of superior cognitive abilities, allowing for new ways of thinking and communicating. The reasons for this evolution have yet to be determined. In any event, the Homo Sapiens is believed to have gained extraordinarily supple language capabilities. Such skills gave birth to gossip. They enabled the detailed exchange of information within bands (including about potential external threats), and with it the sharing of values which allowed for bigger tribes to thrive in a cooperative and socially cohesive environment. The Neanderthals and Denisovans could not compete.

The book references a paper by R.I.M. Dunbar (2004) entitled “Gossip in Evolutionary Perspective” which provides some further background. Mr. Dunbar’s thesis can be summarized as follows—Primates use grooming as a way to bond. The time required to groom, a one-on-one activity, mathematically created a ceiling to the size of any group to around eighty members. Language allowed for gossiping, a group activity which helped humans break that ceiling and allowed communities to reach a size of one hundred and fifty individuals. The author also notes that one of the important functions of gossip was to exchange information about “free riders”, defined as “those who take the benefits of sociality without paying the costs”. Gossip created an incentive for all to contribute to common objectives since offenders risked being subject to the people’s opprobrium.

Back to “Sapiens” where Mr. Harari further argues that with the enriched language skills came not only gossip but also the ability to tell stories which in turn gave rise to fiction, a talent which is not available to any other animal. Fictitious stories allowed for the emergence of common myths and social narratives which could bind individuals into much larger groups. Gossip and stories became the cornerstones of civilization.

Now type “gossip” and “corporate culture” in Google and a deluge of warnings about the bad effect of gossiping on corporate culture appears on the screen. In Stop Enabling Gossip On Your teampublished in the Harvard Business Review (2015), for example, the authors note that gossip replaces formal communication channels, allows for negative emotions to be expressed and fosters interpersonal conflicts. Further literature suggests that gossip is the expression of an unhealthy social system and is synonymous with “workplace violence” perpetrated by untrustworthy individuals with a low self-esteem. It is generally concluded with aplomb that gossip is plain bad and should not be tolerated.

Gossip has a bad rap which is not justified. Research, including The Virtues of Gossip from the Department of Psychology at Berkeley (2011), demonstrates that gossip helps maintain social norms within an organization. They also keep workers in line as information about those behaving badly, including those free riders, is shared to protect those playing by the rules. Moreover, through the sharing of stories, gossip fuels corporate narratives which are one of the key pillars of a firm’s culture (see “A Hero’s Journey”, May 2011).

Like 50,000 years ago, gossip and stories enable organizations to grow whilst maintaining a sense of unity. Since they allow for scale, they are an important source of competitive advantage in the corporate world. Malicious gossip is solely the fruit of employees with an unfitting behavior abusing an important social bonding tool which should be cherished by all.

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