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The unknown force: How gossip shapes the functioning and performance of organizational groups.

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - FORCE-OF-GOSSIP (The unknown force: How gossip shapes the functioning and performance of organizational groups.)

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2021-08-31

Within the ERC Consolidator Grant project “The unknown force: How gossip shapes the functioning and performance of organizational groups”, we study the antecedents and consequences of gossip in organizations.

Most people have a general idea of what “gossiping” entails and often, we tend to see it as either a trivial, or even as a morally reproachable type of behavior. At the same time however, gossip, which is defined as exchanging information about somebody behind their back, is an activity that many people engage in. In organizations, in which people work together and are interdependent, that is, influence one another in various ways, gossip is a ubiquitous phenomenon. Interestingly, research examining the impact of gossiping on teams in organizations, has thus far not led to conclusive insights. On the one hand, studies have sometimes underlined the negative “lay” perspective on gossip, by demonstrating that gossiping is associated with distrust in teams, and lowered team cooperation and viability. On the other hand, other studies have demonstrated that gossip can motivate people to behave more in accordance with (cooperative) group norms and therefore has been found to enhance cooperation and team outcomes. As such, gossip is currently an “unknown force” in organizations; we cannot answer the question of when and why it is functional or dysfunctional for work groups.

The purpose of our research project “The unknown force: How gossip shapes the functioning and performance of organizational groups” is to change this. In this project, by using different research methods, we aim to increase understanding of the meaning and (dys)functionality of gossip in organizations. Some examples of our research questions are:

“Why do people gossip?"
"What motivates gossiping?"
“How does gossip affect how individuals behave in the context of work groups, and why?”
“How does gossip affect group outcomes?”
“Which organizational factors help to enhance the positive and mitigate the negative effects of gossip?”

By examining these issues, we aim to contribute to fundamental scientific insights into group functioning and to provide organizations with the necessary understanding to develop intervention.
This research project consists of four subprojects which have their own focus and methodology.

Subproject 1 (Ph.D. student 1)
Objectives: Distinguishing proself and prosocial gossip and examining effects of social information processing on gossip recipients' attributions of, and reactions to, gossip.
Main results so far: People gossip for prosocial (group-enhancing) as well as proself (self-enhancing) motives.

Subproject 2 (Ph.D. student 2)
Objectives: Examine the effects of gossip and type of task on group functioning and performance.
Main results so far: People are more honest when they know that they can be gossiped about than when they are not gossiped about because the fear of gossip increases people's reputational concerns.

Subproject 3 (Postdoc 1)
Objectives: Examine gossip processes in a self-organizing computer model, enabling tests of
group composition effects and feedback loops
Main results so far: Our first results suggest that gossip mainly has a negative effect on cooperation when compared to only first-hand information. While pro-self and emotion-venting gossip always decrease cooperation, the positive role of pro-social gossip depends on the agents’ initial propensity to cooperate.

Subproject 4 (Postdoc 2)
Objectives: Establish external validity by examining gossip in organizational samples, and
enabling tests of variables not included in the simple version of the GOSSIPP framework
Main results: Targets of negative gossip feel less included by others in their team and as a consequence of this reduce the effort they invest in their team
Ground-breaking potential:

Currently, disparate research findings cause gossip, a ubiquitous phenomenon in organizational groups, to remain an "unknown force" in organizations.
This project will change this and lead to several groundbreaking outcomes for the field of gossip research:
- The project bridges disciplinary approaches and research paradigms (e.g. experiments suggesting group
interaction, interactive group experiments, confederate experiments, computer modelling, qualitative
concept mapping studies, and longitudinal surveys, see under Methodology) that have previously only
been employed separately from one another for gossip research.
- Integrating insights based on these various paradigms is expected to lead to significant contributions (i.e.
journal publications) in the fields of organization science, social / organizational psychology,
communication science, and complexity science. These contributions will explain previously disparate
research findings and therefore lead to much needed understanding of gossip.- The project will lead to knowledge on motivations driving gossip and effects of gossip and can therefore
inform practitioners about the dynamics of gossip in organizations, enabling the development of
evidence-based interventions.
- The project opens up possibilities to increase understanding of gossip even further by linkages to other
fields and disciplines. Specifically, linkages between gossip and institutional / cultural change in
organizations, conflict resolution, impression management and organizational learning will become
possible when the research framework has been tested.
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