Most workers are guilty of it from time to time, but gossiping in the workplace is viewed by many employers and employees alike as a time waster -- and potentially destructive, too.
But a new study by Dutch researchers finds that gossip helps keep offices running more smoothly and can actually improve people's productivity.
Gossiping about underperforming workers can, in fact, help keep them in line, researchers from Amsterdam University found, by pressuring them to contribute in subtle ways.
"The results of our studies show that gossip may not always be as negative as one might believe at first," London's Daily Mail quotes lead author Bianca Beersma as saying. "Gossip allows people to gather and validate information, to enjoy themselves with others, and to protect their group."
The group also found that 90 percent of everyday conversations include gossip.
The research suggests that gossip is a product of human evolution, developed over thousands of years, and that, historically, being socially agreeable made humans safer and facilitated sharing of resources such as food.
"A single person cannot ward off a bear or catch a mammoth but a group can," Beersma said.
But as with any group, there are bound to be slackers -- those who don't contribute or don't pull their full weight. Talking with other members in the group helped to warn others of the slackers' behavior.
The findings are published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. The research encompassed three studies. The first involved 220 students who were asked to describe the most recent time they engaged in gossip and to explain their motives for doing so. It found that gathering or checking information was the most important motive.
The second study, involving the same students, asked whether they would gossip about someone who wasn't pulling his or her full share of the workload. Results showed that people were more likely to gossip about shirkers to colleagues than friends, with the aim of protecting the group as their main motivation.
A third study, which involved 123 students, asked participants to imagine a colleague or a trusted friend gossiping to them about someone else.
Researchers found that if the gossip protected the group from someone shirking their duties, students viewed the act as less immoral and more social than in other situations.
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