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* Acad&my of ManagemeTit Review
200D. Vol. 25, No. 2. 428-438.




                                                                  NOTE

                                 PASSING THE WORD: TOWARD A MODEL OF
                                  GOSSIP AND POWER IN THE WORKPLACE
                                                       NANCY B. KURLAND
                                                       LISA HOPE PELLED
                                                 University of Southern California

                            Although gossip is widespread, seldom has it been a topic of management research.
                            Here we build a conceptual model oi workplace gossip and its eifects on the power oi
                            employees who initiate it. After defining and distinguishing among different kinds o(
                            workplace gossip, we develop propositions about Ihe effect of that gossip on gosslp-
                            ers' expert, referent, reward, and coercive power. We then suggest how moderators
                            may shape those effects and discuss implications of the model.


  As early as the Hawthorne Studies (Roethlis-                             its definltion^despite Noon and Delbridge's
berger & Dickson, 1943), management scholars                               (1993) call for research on the topic. Thus, it is
recognized the existence of the informal organi-                           important to begin redressing this gap. In this
zation. Unlike the formal organization, which                              article we draw on writings from multiple disci-
appears in organization charts and reflects pre-                           plines to offer a definition and theoretical model
scribed patterns for officially sanctioned mes-                            of workplace gossip and its consequences.
sages, the informal organization consists of                                  Models of general communication typically
spontaneous, emergent patterns that result from                            have been of two kinds. The first, most common
individuals' discretionary choices (Stohl, 1995:                           kind is the linear model (e.g., Berlo, 1960;
65). This informal network, also called the                                Osgood, Suci, & Tannenbaum, 1957; Shannon &
grapevine (e.g., Baird, 1977; Daniels, Spiker, &                           Weaver, 1949), in which the researcher treats
Papa, 1997), has received considerable attention                           communication as a "left-to-right, one-way" pro-
in the years since its discovery (e.g., Davis, 1953;                       cess (Rogers & Kincaid, 1981: 33). Key compo-
Katz & Kahn, 1978; Krackhardt & Hanson, 1993;                              nents of linear models are the source (person
Podolny & Baron, 1997). Still, there is a need for                         who initiates communication), message (content
closer examination of its specific components—                             of the communication), channel (transmission
for example, rumor, "catching up," and gossip                              medium), and receiver (person receiving the
(Goldsmith & Baxter, 1996). Accordingly, in this                           message; Ruch, 1989). Communication is viewed
article we explore one such component: work-                               as a process by which a message is transferred
place gossip.                                                              from an active source, through a channel, to a
  Although psychologists (e.g.. Fine & Rosnow,                             passive receiver.
1978), sociologists (e.g., Eder & Enke, 1991), and                            The second kind of general communication
anthropologists (e.g., Dunbar, 1996) have exam-                            model is the convergence model (Rogers & Kin-
ined the nature and role of gossip in larger so-                           caid, 1981). In convergence models (e.g., Kincaid,
ciety, scholars have yet to develop a conceptual                           1979; Pearce, Figgins, & Golen, 1984) researchers
model of workplace gossip—or even agree on                                 treat communication as a two-way process. Sug-
                                                                           gesting that participants in the communication
                                                                           process are simultaneously sending and receiv-
   We are grateful for comments Chris Earley and three                     ing messages, researchers developing these
anonymous reviewers provided. We also thank Tom Cum-                       models make less distinction between sender
mings, Janet Fulk, Bill Gartner, Mike Kamins, Peter Kim,                   and receiver. Instead, they delve into the rela-
Peter Monge, Nandini Rajagopalan, Kathleen Reardon, and
Patti Riley for their helpful comments and suggestions.                    tionships among communication participants,
   Both authors contributed equally; our names appear in                   the larger social networks in which those rela-
alphabetical order.                                                        tionships exist, and the dynamic nature of com-
                                                                     42S
2000                                               Kurland and Felled                                         429

munication (e.g., how communication changes                   eration and impact of gossip (Burt & Knez, 1996;
its participants).                                            Jaeger, Skelder, & Rosnow, 1998). Indeed, re-
   To ensure practical value in communication                 searchers (Martin, Feldman, Hatch, & Sitkin,
models, researchers may need to balance the                   1983; Martin & Siehl, 1983) have observed that
simplicity of linear models with the complexity               even an ostensibly minor story about one em-
of convergence models. As Smeltzer and Leo-                   ployee can ultimately transform a corporate cul-
nard have suggested, a communication model                    ture, if that story is shared by many organiza-
should "contain enough elements so that users                 tional members.
can relate their personal experiences and train-                 A complete network analysis of gossip is be-
ing to the model. But it must not become so                   yond the scope of our model, for as Burt and
complex that practitioners find it impossible to              Knez note, even "a minimal assumption of active
understand" (1994: 32). Thus, our model lies be-              third parties creates enormous complexity for
tween the linear and convergence categories.                  theoretical analysis" (1996: 72). Nevertheless, at
Like linear models, its primary emphasis is on                several points in this article, we touch on how
the flow of a message (gossip) from source (gos-              such networks play a role in gossip-power link-
siper) to receiver (gossip recipient).' However,              ages.
with our model we improve on traditional linear
models by paying greater attention to the com-
munication context—specifically, the culture in                 KEY CONCEPTS IN THE PROPOSED MODEL
which gossip occurs. Also, the receiver in our
model has a more active role than in strict linear            Definition and Types of Gossip
models: we consider the interplay between                        As prior researchers have noted (Jaeger et al.,
source and receiver—that is, how the relation-                1998; Schein, 1994), gossip traditionally has been
ship between gossiper and recipient moderates                 defined as idle chatter, chitchat, or the eviJ
the effects we propose. Additionally, we incor-               tongue. These negative connotations largely
porate the receiver's reaction to the message in              arose from religious writings (e.g., Exod. 23 : 1;
our model's dependent variable: the source's                  Lev. 19 :16; Prov. 25 :18). Many authors (e.g., Bok,
power over the receiver. The receiver's interpre-             1984) continue to treat gossip as improper and
tation of the gossip largely determines how                   overly subjective. Some, however, recently have
much power the source gains.                                  offered neutral definitions, such as "evaluative
   Power is the dependent variable in our model               talk about a person who is not present" (Eder 8E
for several reasons. First, social scientists (e.g.,          Enke, 1991: 494) and "the process of informally
Berger, 1994; Giddens, 1984; Mumby, 1988) have                communicating value-laden information about
suggested that communication in general tends                 members of a social setting" (Noon & Delbridge,
to shape power structures in organizations as                 1993: 25). Unlike their negative counterparts,
well as society. Second, in extant writings on                these more even-handed definitions allow for
gossip, scholars have hinted at linkages to                   gossip's functional as well as dysfunctional side
power (e.g., Emler, 1994). Third, power is a mul-             (e.g., Dunbar, 1996; Tebbutt, 1995). Here, we draw
tidimensional construct (French & Raven, 1959;                upon and adapt these neutral conceptualiza-
Hinkin & Schriescheim, 1989); as such, it has                 tions, defining workplace gossip as iniormal
sufficient breadth to capture a variety of work-              and evaJuative talk in an organization, usually
place gossip effects. Finally, power is often a               among no more than a few individuals, aJbouf
critical asset to employees (Pfeffer, 1992).                  another member of that organization who is not
   Although the focus of our model is the gossiper-           present.
recipient dyad, it is important to keep in mind                  Although laypersons and academics (e.g.,
that such dyads are embedded in social net-                   Ayim, 1994) occasionally may suggest that gos-
works. Mutual friends and acquaintances of the                sip encompasses informal communication
gossiper and recipient can influence the prolif-              about objects or events—not just people—our
                                                              treatment focuses on talk about other persons.
                                                              We delimit our definition in this manner for two
                                                              reasons. First, in scholarly writings on gossip in
   ' The source may be either a supervisor, subordinate, or
peer of the recipient. That is, the direction of gossip may   larger society (e.g., Eder & Enke, 1991; Harris,
either be upward, doivnwfaid, or lateral.                     1993; Rosnow & Fine, 1976), researchers predom-
430                                           Academy oi Management Review                                               April

inantly treat the concept as communication                        tential ability to influence behavior, to change
about people. Second, the American Manage-                        the course of events, to overcome resistance,
ment Association (AMA) recently asserted that                     and to get people to do things that they would
the grapevine may include a wide range of in-                     otherwise not do" (1992: 30). Finkelstein has re-
formal communication, whereas gossip focuses                      ferred to power as "the capacity of individual
solely on information about people (Smith, 1996).                 actors to exert their will" (1992: 507). Based on
   lust as there are distinctions between gossip                  these writings and the writings of others (French
and other forms of informal communication,                        & Raven, 1969; House, 1988; Shackleton, 1995), we
there are important distinctions among different                  define power here as the ability to exert one's
kinds of gossip. A review of relevant literature                  will, influencing others to do things that they
points to three dimensions useful for making                      would not otherwise do. In the model we specif-
these distinctions: sign, credibility, and work-                  ically focus on the gossiper's power over gossip
relatedness. Following writings on feedback                       recipients.
(e.g., Ilgen, Fisher, & Taylor, 1979), we define                     The multidimensionality of power is well rec-
sign as the positivity or negativity of the infor-
                                                                  ognized. French and Raven (1959) advanced a
mation being related. When gossip consists of
                                                                  typology of power that remains popular (e.g.,
favorable news about others—for example, stat-
ing that "Mary received a raise"—its sign is                      Atwater, 1995; Davis & Schoorman, 1997; Hinkin
positive. When gossip consists of unfavorable                     & Schriesheim, 1994), distinguishing among five
news about others, its sign is negative.^                         kinds of power that one individual (whom we
                                                                  call Person A) can have over another individual
    Credibility is the extent to which the gossip is
believable—that is, it is seemingly accurate and                  (whom we call Person B): coercive power, reward
truthful. Message credibility has been the sub-                   power, legitimate power, expert power, and ref-
ject of considerable research in the fields of                    erent power.^ Although organizational scholars
communication, marketing, and social psychol-                     have offered other power typologies (e.g.,
ogy (e.g., Boehm, 1994; McCroskey, 1969; Slattery                 Finkelstein, 1992; Yukl & Falbe, 1991), French
 8f Tiedge, 1992). A recent review attests to its                 and Raven's original classification is the most
 importance as a communication feature (Self,                     widely accepted and adopted. Their typology is
 1996).                                                           particularly useful for describing individual-
    Consistent with prior literature (e.g.. Morrow,               level power, which is the focus of our model.
 1981; Tushman, 1979) in which authors have dis-                  Hence, our propositions pertain to four of these
 tinguished between work-related and non-work-                    power types (coercive, reward, expert, and refer-
 related communication, we distinguish among                      ent) that we expect gossip to influence. (We do
 work-related (professional) and non-work-                        not consider legitimate power as an outcome
 related (social) gossip. We define worfc-reJated-                because it is largely based on one's position—
 ness as the degree to which gossip is focused on                 that is, hierarchical rank—rather than on social
 a subject's work life, such as job performance,                  processes.) Our predictions refer to the French
 career progress, relationships with other organ-                  and Raven dimensions, but we draw from a
 izational members, and general behavior in the                    range of power and influence writings to de-
 workplace.                                                       velop those predictions.

Definition and Types of Power
  Also essential to our model is the concept of                      ^ Coercive power is the power that emerges from Person
power. Pfeffer has described power as "the po-                    B's belief that Person A has the ability to punish him or her.
                                                                  flewaid power is the power that emerges from Person B's
                                                                  belief that Person A can provide him or her with desired
   ^ Within the categories of positive gossip and negative        outcomes. Legitimate power is the power that emerges from
gossip, it is possible to make additional distinctions. For       Person B's perception that Person A has a legitimate right,
example, gossip can be negative if it describes an unfortu-       based on position in the organization, to influence him or
nate event that befell someone (e.g., a broken leg), but it can   her. Expert power is the power that emerges from Person B's
also be negative if it describes unethical behavior. Here, we     belief that Person A has special knowledge or expertise that
interpret gossip as negative when it constitutes a "smear"        Person B needs. Finally, referent power is the power that
that could detract from a subject's reputation. Positive gos-     emerges from Person B's attraction for and desire to be
sip, however, tends to enhance a subject's reputation.            associated with Person A.
2000                                              Kuiland and Pelled                                                   431

          THEORETICAL BACKGROUND AND                         relates negative news about a third party, recip-
                  HYPOTHESES                                 ients may infer that the gossiper also could
  Figure 1 presents our model. In the following              spread negative information about them (Yerk-
sections we develop propositions about the il-               ovich, 1977). Because such information can dam-
lustrated linkages.                                          age reputations and/or careers (Emler, 1994;
                                                             Fine, 1977; Glazer & Ras, 1994; Tebbutt, 1995),
                                                             negative gossip may constitute an implicit
Linkages Between Gossip and Power                            threat by the gossiper. French and Raven (1959)
  One main effect of negative gossip may be                  proposed that when Person B perceives that Per-
enhanced coercive power. When the gossiper                   son A can administer punishments. Person A
                                                             has coercive power over Person B. Along the
                     nGURE 1                                 same lines, other researchers (e.g.. Hunt &
         Proposed Model of Gossip and Power                  Nevin, 1974; Tedeschi, 1972) have advanced the
                                                             notion that implicit and explicit threats can en-
                                                             hance power and influence.* Those who feel
                    Gossip features:                         threatened may comply in order to avoid retri-
                  - credibility
                  - work-relatedness
                                                             bution (Kipnis, Schmidt, & Wilkinson, 1980).
                                                             Thus, negative gossip may give the gossiper
                                                             coercive power over recipients.

                                              Reward
                                                                   Proposifion i; 7n a wort seffing, nega-
                                              power                tive gossip will enhance the gossiper's
                                                                   coercive power over gossip recipients.
                                                                Positive gossip, in contrast, is likely to affect
                                                             reward power. When a gossiper shares positive
                                                             news about another worker, recipients may infer
                                                             that the gossiper also could spread positive in-
                                              Coercive       formation about them. Because such information
                                               power         can strengthen reputations and/or careers, pos-
                                                             itive gossip shows the ability to distribute (al-
       Positive                                              beit indirectly) desired outcomes. French and
        gossip
                                                             Raven (1959) suggested that when Person B per-
                                                             ceives that Person A has control over valued
                                                             outcomes. Person A has reward power over Per-
                                                             son B. Along the same lines, Etzioni (1961) pro-
                                                             posed that control of material and symbolic re-
                                              Expert        wards are a basis for power. Additionally,
   Negatives                                   power
    gossip                                                   Emerson asserted that power "resides in control


                                                                '' There may be limits to the effectiveness ol implicit
                                                            threats (e.g., the threat of spreading negative information) in
                                                            attempts to gain power. First, if the gossiper has few con-
                                                             nections to others, recipients may be less concerned about
                                              Referent       the gossiper's ability to spread dark secrets. Second, some
                                               power         news—for example, information that is hard to remember—
                                                             may be especially difficult to spread (Zimbardo & Leippe,
                               t                             1991), Third, as our Proposition 7 suggests, recipients may be
                                                             less afraid of the gossiper when they have a good relation-
                                                             ship with him or her. Moreover, those vrho do feel threatened
                                                             may strive to decrease their dependence on the person mak-
                      Context factors:                       ing the threat (Bacharach & Lawler, 1980; Tjosvold, 1995). As
                  - relationsh ip quality                    Bacharach and Lawler have noted, coercion "should be most
                  - organizati onal culture                  effective when the target is highly dependent on the user"
                                                             {1980: 177).
432                                    Academy of Management Review                                   April

over the things [another person] values         In     those who condemn gossip from an ethical
short, power resides implicitly in the other's de-     standpoint will be especially hard pressed to
pendency" (1962: 32). Resource dependence the-         find anything redeeming about negative gossip.
orists (e.g., Salancik & Pfeffer, 1977), too, have
advanced the notion that power comes from the               Proposition 4a: In a work setting, gos-
control of relevant resources—resources that are            sip will reduce the gossiper's referent
important to others. Hence, by revealing the gos-           power over recipients. This effect will
siper's ability to control an important resource            be stronger for negative gossip than
(reputation), positive gossip may give the gos-             for positive gossip.
siper reward power over recipients.                      The competing argument is that gossip en-
      Proposition 2: In a work setting, posi-         hances referent power. As gossipers share
      tive gossip will enhance the gossiper's         news, they draw recipients into their social cir-
      reward power over gossip recipients.            cles (e.g., Dunbar, 1996; Eder & Enke, 1991). These
                                                      recipients, in turn, may appreciate being in-
   Gossip in general, whether positive or nega-       cluded. Moreover, through gossip, recipients
tive, is apt to influence expert power, for it can    might realize that the gossiper is on the inside of
facilitate an exchange of data and help build a       a social network. This realization is apt to make
knowledge base (e.g.. Code, 1994; Dunbar, 1996).      recipients more interested in knowing and be-
When a gossiper shares information about oth-         ing liked by the gossiper. Consistent with this
ers, the recipient may learn more about the or-       notion, impression management scholars have
ganization's values. As Heath (1994) has ob-          found that people can enhance their image by
served, stories shared by coworkers can help          managing information about others with whom
employees understand principles by which their        they are associated (Gardner & Martinko, 1988).
organization operates. Additionally, gossip can          If gossip enhances referent power, this effect
reveal that the gossiper has relevant knowledge       is apt to taper off at very high levels—that is, as
about persons in the work environment. As the         the frequency of the gossip and the pool of re-
gossiper demonstrates such knowledge (an abil-        cipients increase. As Levin and Arluke have ob-
ity that depends, in part, on the gossiper's net-     served, a person who gossips too much "may
work centrality), the recipient may come to view      become defined as a 'big mouth' or a 'yenta' who
the gossiper as a source of useful information,       will 'talk to anyone about anything,' as a person
and the gossiper may thereby gain expert              who cannot be trusted to keep a secret or to be
power.                                                discreet with 'privileged information'" (1987; 16).
      Proposifion 3: In a work setting, gossip        Moreover, when gossipers talk incessantly
      will enhance the gossiper's expert              about others, they may become resented for us-
      power over gossip recipients.                   ing so much of recipients' time. Thus, we offer
                                                      the following.
   In the case of referent power, we expect gossip
to have competing effects. One possibility is              Proposition 4b: In a work setting, gos-
that gossip reduces referent power, for gossip             sip will have a curvilinear effect on
may be seen as a small or petty activity. As               the gossiper's referent power over re-
mentioned earlier, in religious writings and               cipients; it will enhance       referent
other sources of guidance and education, gossip            power until it reaches a very high
is often denounced as idle, immoral, or improper           level, at which point it will detract
(Levin & Arluke, 1987). Socialized by such teach-          from referent power.
ings, many persons perceive gossip as repre-
hensible, and they look down on those who en-
gage in the behavior. Gossip, therefore, may          Moderators of Linkages Between Gossip and
detract from the referent power of the gossiper.      Power
   This effect is likely to be particularly pro-        The strength of the above linkages may be
nounced when gossip is negative. As described         influenced by characteristics of the gossip and
earlier, positive gossip can enhance the reputa-      by contextual factors, including organizational
tion of its subjects, whereas negative gossip         culture and the relationship between gossiper
tends to destroy subjects' reputations. Hence,        and recipient.
2000                                                   Kmland and Pelled                                           433

   Features of the gossip. As described earlier,                   perceive that the gossiper is attempting to mis-
one particularly relevant characteristic of gos-                   lead them. As Zucker (1986) has suggested, indi-
sip is its credibility. Upon reviewing a variety of                viduals perceived as providing accurate infor-
empirical findings and conducting their own                        mation are more trusted than those who share
study. Slater and Rouner (1998) concluded that                     inaccurate knowledge.
message credibility has considerable influence
on judgments of source credibility.^ Thus, gossip                       Proposifion 5; The effects of gossip on
that lacks credibility can lead a recipient to                          coercive, reward, expert, and referent
view the gossiper as a noncredible source. Even                         power will be moderated by gossip
if the recipient's view of the gossiper is not                          credibility. Any tendency for gossip fo
widely held, he or she may assume that others                           enhance the four power types will be
share this view, for a common cognitive bias is                         stronger when credibility is high than
the faJse consensus effect: the tendency to over-                       when it is low. Any tendency for gos-
estimate the prevalence of one's own opinions                           sip to reduce referent power will be
or experiences (Kelley, 1967; Whitley, 1998). Ac-                       weaker when credibility is high than
cording to Fiske and Taylor, "Researchers con-                          when it is low.
sistently find that consensus information (i.e.,                      Like credibility, the work-relatedness of gos-
the opinions or experience of others) is rela-                     sip may play a moderating role. Rewards (e.g.,
tively underutilized in the judgment process"                      high performance ratings and promotions) and
(1991: 93). They explain that those "who agree                     punishments in the organization (e.g., demo-
with us are more likely to come to mind when we                    tions and firings) are based largely on an em-
attempt to infer what others will believe" (1991:                  ployee's work-related behavior. It is, in fact, il-
75). Recipients, therefore, may infer that the gos-                legal to take many personal events (topics of
siper also lacks credibility with others and will                  social gossip), such as marriage, a major illness,
not be believed when sharing negative or posi-                     or a change of housing, into account when de-
tive gossip. Hence, when gossip credibility is                     termining such rewards and punishments (Holl-
low, recipients are less likely to view the gos-                   witz, Goodman, & Bolte, 1995; Madison & Knud-
siper as someone with coercive or reward                           son-Fields, 1987). Although some managers still
power.                                                             consider those personal factors when allocating
   In addition, credibility may affect the relation-               resources, legislation (and the possibility of
ship between gossip and expert power. If recip-                    costly lawsuits) constrains their ability to do so.
ients believe that a gossiper's information is                     Thus, the employee who engages in work-
inaccurate, they may begin to question or doubt                    related gossip has a greater ability to influence
any future information the gossiper relays. As a                   rewards and punishments in the workplace than
result, that gossip will contribute less to, and                   does an employee who engages in gossip about
may detract from, the gossiper's expert power. In                  other topics.
line with this reasoning, Krackhardt (1990) has                      Work-related gossip is also particularly likely
found that employees with more accurate infor-                     to shape expert power. Fiske and Taylor (1991)
mation about the informal network have higher                      have pointed out that a given context can en-
reputational power than those whose informa-                       courage us to attend to some information more
tion is less accurate.                                             than other information. Being in the workplace
   Lack of credibility also may diminish any pos-                  makes employees particularly attuned to work-
itive link, and enhance any negative link, be-                     related information. When the recipient is in a
tween gossip and referent power. Recipients                        work context, "professional" topics such as a
may resent the gossiper who seems to relate                        person's salary, promotion, and recognition gen-
far-fetched or incorrect information, for they may                 erally have more relevance than do divorce,
                                                                   plastic surgery, or other "social" topics. Thus, a
                                                                   gossiper who provides work-related information
   ^ Although message and source credibility are conceptu-         about others is especially likely to be used as an
ally distinct, they are often closely related. Indeed, credibil-   information source and seen as an expert in the
ity is a complex feature, and that complexity may make it          workplace.
more challenging to measure, compared to other features of
gossip. Those who test the proposed model should keep this            In addition, the work-relatedness of gossip
caveat in mind.                                                    may diminish any negative link between gossip
434                                    Academy ol Management fleview                                  April

and referent power. Recipients are less likely to           moderated by gossiper-recipient rela-
perceive the gossiper as wasting their time at              tionship quality. Any tendency tor
the office when the gossip is relevant to that              negative gossip to enhance coercive
setting. Hence, they will be less resentful of the          power will be weaker when relation-
gossiper when the work-relatedness of gossip is             ship quality is high. Any tendency for
high.                                                       positive gossip to enhance reward
                                                            power will be stronger when relation-
      Proposition 6: The effects of gossip on               ship quality is high.
      coercive, reward, expert, and referent
      power will be moderated by the work-                Relationship quality also may shape gossip
      relatedness of the gossip. Any ten-              effects on referent power. Gossip is more likely
      dency for gossip to enhance coercive,            to enhance referent pow^er when the quality of a
      reward, and expert power will be                 relationship is high. If the gossiper and recipi-
      stronger when work-relatedness is                ent have a close and trusting relationship, the
      high. Any tendency for gossip to re-             recipient is apt to view such gossip as appropri-
      duce referent power will be weaker               ate, for informal communication is characteris-
      when work-relatedness is high.                   tic of high-quality relationships (Fairhurst, 1993;
                                                       Lee & Jablin, 1995). Consistent with this logic is
   Gossiper-recipient relationship quality. Like       "halo effect" research (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977),
the nature of the gossip, the context of that gos-     which has revealed "a tendency to evaluate all
sip—specifically, the quality of the relationship      components of a target person in the same way
between gossiper and recipient—may act as a            once a general evaluation, positive or negative,
moderator. Relationship quality is the degree to       is formed" (Fiske & Taylor, 1991: 256). Thus, in the
which a relationship is characterized by mutual        context of a strong relationship, any positive
support, informal influence, trust, and frequent       link between gossip and referent power will be
information exchange (Lee, 1998). Employees            stronger. Also, when relationship quality is
who have a habit of gossiping with each other,         high, recipients who frown upon gossip in gen-
for example, can be characterized as having a          eral may be more forgiving of the gossiper.
high relationship quality. Much of the literature      Hence, any negative link between gossip and
on relationship quality pertains to supervisor-        referent power will be weaker.
subordinate dyads or leader-member exchange
theory (Dansereau, Graen, & Haga, 1975), but                Proposition 8: The effect of gossip on
one can also characterize peer relationships in             referent power will be moderated by
terms of relationship quality (Kram & Isabella,             gossiper-recipient relationship qual-
1985).                                                      ity. Any tendency for gossip to en-
   Negative gossip is less likely to enhance co-            hance such power will be stronger
ercive power when relationship quality is high.             when relationship quality is high. Any
If a recipient trusts a gossiper, that recipient            tendency for gossip to reduce such
may believe the gossiper will avoid harming                 power will be weaJcer when reiafion-
him or her. Even if the gossiper is spreading               ship quality is high.
negative news about others, the recipient may
be confident that his or her own dark secrets will       Organizational culture. Another moderating
not be revealed by that gossiper.                      contextual factor may be organizational cuJfure:
   Positive gossip, however, is more likely to en-     the "system of shared values (that define what is
hance reward power when relationship quality           important) and norms that define appropriate
is high. A recipient who is a close friend of a        attitudes and behaviors for organizational
gossiper may believe that gossiper will try to         members (how to feel and behave)" (O'Reilly &
help him or her when possible. Thus, if that           Chatman, 1996: 160). In some organizations the
gossiper is spreading positive news about oth-         culture advocates considerable formal commu-
ers, the recipient is especially likely to think the   nication, while discouraging informal communi-
gossiper will do the same for him or her.              cation (Smeltzer & Leonard, 1994). If there is a
                                                       cultural injunction against informal communi-
      Proposition 7: The effect of gossip on           cation, then employees will be constrained in
      coercive and reward power will be                their use of gossip to spread news about others.
2000                                                 Kurland and Pelled                                                     435

Gossip recipients may recognize these con-                       refined conceptualization and specific predic-
straints and conclude that gossipers have few                    tions about the phenomenon. On the practitioner
opportunities to help or harm reputations. The                   side, the proposed framework illustrates that,
effect of gossip on reward and coercive power,                   contrary to the adage "small people talk about
therefore, will be weaker.                                       other people," gossip can make a person quite
   Also, when culture encourages formal commu-                   "large" in an organization. At the same time, the
nication and discourages informal communica-                     model shows conditions under which gossip
tion, organizational members may not look to                     may backfire. An understanding of such dynam-
gossip as a source of information. Evidence has                  ics of gossip is likely to help organizations and
shown that individuals refrain from an informa-                  their members capitalize on this widespread
tion-seeking strategy if they expect the strategy                genre of informal communication.
to have high social costs (Miller & Jablin, 1991).
In an antigossip culture, seeking information
from a gossiper may have such costs. Conse-
quently, it may be difficult for the gossiper to                                       REFERENCES
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a risk.                                                             in organizations. Personnel PsychoJogy, 6: 301-312.
436                                            Academy of Management Review                                                   April

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                    Nancy B. Kurland is an assistant professor oi management and organization in the
                    Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, where she teaches
                    courses in organizational behavior, business ethics, and leadership. She received her
                    Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. She researches gossip, telecommuting, gender
                    issues, the social impact of technology, and ethics and incentives.
Academy of Management Review                                  April



Lisa Hope Pelled is an assistant professor of management and organization in the
Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, where she teaches
courses in organizational behavior, managing interpersonal relations, and multicul-
tural management. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University. Her research
areas include organizational demography, workplace emotions, communication, and
conflict.
Articulo del mes

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Articulo del mes

  • 1. * Acad&my of ManagemeTit Review 200D. Vol. 25, No. 2. 428-438. NOTE PASSING THE WORD: TOWARD A MODEL OF GOSSIP AND POWER IN THE WORKPLACE NANCY B. KURLAND LISA HOPE PELLED University of Southern California Although gossip is widespread, seldom has it been a topic of management research. Here we build a conceptual model oi workplace gossip and its eifects on the power oi employees who initiate it. After defining and distinguishing among different kinds o( workplace gossip, we develop propositions about Ihe effect of that gossip on gosslp- ers' expert, referent, reward, and coercive power. We then suggest how moderators may shape those effects and discuss implications of the model. As early as the Hawthorne Studies (Roethlis- its definltion^despite Noon and Delbridge's berger & Dickson, 1943), management scholars (1993) call for research on the topic. Thus, it is recognized the existence of the informal organi- important to begin redressing this gap. In this zation. Unlike the formal organization, which article we draw on writings from multiple disci- appears in organization charts and reflects pre- plines to offer a definition and theoretical model scribed patterns for officially sanctioned mes- of workplace gossip and its consequences. sages, the informal organization consists of Models of general communication typically spontaneous, emergent patterns that result from have been of two kinds. The first, most common individuals' discretionary choices (Stohl, 1995: kind is the linear model (e.g., Berlo, 1960; 65). This informal network, also called the Osgood, Suci, & Tannenbaum, 1957; Shannon & grapevine (e.g., Baird, 1977; Daniels, Spiker, & Weaver, 1949), in which the researcher treats Papa, 1997), has received considerable attention communication as a "left-to-right, one-way" pro- in the years since its discovery (e.g., Davis, 1953; cess (Rogers & Kincaid, 1981: 33). Key compo- Katz & Kahn, 1978; Krackhardt & Hanson, 1993; nents of linear models are the source (person Podolny & Baron, 1997). Still, there is a need for who initiates communication), message (content closer examination of its specific components— of the communication), channel (transmission for example, rumor, "catching up," and gossip medium), and receiver (person receiving the (Goldsmith & Baxter, 1996). Accordingly, in this message; Ruch, 1989). Communication is viewed article we explore one such component: work- as a process by which a message is transferred place gossip. from an active source, through a channel, to a Although psychologists (e.g.. Fine & Rosnow, passive receiver. 1978), sociologists (e.g., Eder & Enke, 1991), and The second kind of general communication anthropologists (e.g., Dunbar, 1996) have exam- model is the convergence model (Rogers & Kin- ined the nature and role of gossip in larger so- caid, 1981). In convergence models (e.g., Kincaid, ciety, scholars have yet to develop a conceptual 1979; Pearce, Figgins, & Golen, 1984) researchers model of workplace gossip—or even agree on treat communication as a two-way process. Sug- gesting that participants in the communication process are simultaneously sending and receiv- We are grateful for comments Chris Earley and three ing messages, researchers developing these anonymous reviewers provided. We also thank Tom Cum- models make less distinction between sender mings, Janet Fulk, Bill Gartner, Mike Kamins, Peter Kim, and receiver. Instead, they delve into the rela- Peter Monge, Nandini Rajagopalan, Kathleen Reardon, and Patti Riley for their helpful comments and suggestions. tionships among communication participants, Both authors contributed equally; our names appear in the larger social networks in which those rela- alphabetical order. tionships exist, and the dynamic nature of com- 42S
  • 2. 2000 Kurland and Felled 429 munication (e.g., how communication changes eration and impact of gossip (Burt & Knez, 1996; its participants). Jaeger, Skelder, & Rosnow, 1998). Indeed, re- To ensure practical value in communication searchers (Martin, Feldman, Hatch, & Sitkin, models, researchers may need to balance the 1983; Martin & Siehl, 1983) have observed that simplicity of linear models with the complexity even an ostensibly minor story about one em- of convergence models. As Smeltzer and Leo- ployee can ultimately transform a corporate cul- nard have suggested, a communication model ture, if that story is shared by many organiza- should "contain enough elements so that users tional members. can relate their personal experiences and train- A complete network analysis of gossip is be- ing to the model. But it must not become so yond the scope of our model, for as Burt and complex that practitioners find it impossible to Knez note, even "a minimal assumption of active understand" (1994: 32). Thus, our model lies be- third parties creates enormous complexity for tween the linear and convergence categories. theoretical analysis" (1996: 72). Nevertheless, at Like linear models, its primary emphasis is on several points in this article, we touch on how the flow of a message (gossip) from source (gos- such networks play a role in gossip-power link- siper) to receiver (gossip recipient).' However, ages. with our model we improve on traditional linear models by paying greater attention to the com- munication context—specifically, the culture in KEY CONCEPTS IN THE PROPOSED MODEL which gossip occurs. Also, the receiver in our model has a more active role than in strict linear Definition and Types of Gossip models: we consider the interplay between As prior researchers have noted (Jaeger et al., source and receiver—that is, how the relation- 1998; Schein, 1994), gossip traditionally has been ship between gossiper and recipient moderates defined as idle chatter, chitchat, or the eviJ the effects we propose. Additionally, we incor- tongue. These negative connotations largely porate the receiver's reaction to the message in arose from religious writings (e.g., Exod. 23 : 1; our model's dependent variable: the source's Lev. 19 :16; Prov. 25 :18). Many authors (e.g., Bok, power over the receiver. The receiver's interpre- 1984) continue to treat gossip as improper and tation of the gossip largely determines how overly subjective. Some, however, recently have much power the source gains. offered neutral definitions, such as "evaluative Power is the dependent variable in our model talk about a person who is not present" (Eder 8E for several reasons. First, social scientists (e.g., Enke, 1991: 494) and "the process of informally Berger, 1994; Giddens, 1984; Mumby, 1988) have communicating value-laden information about suggested that communication in general tends members of a social setting" (Noon & Delbridge, to shape power structures in organizations as 1993: 25). Unlike their negative counterparts, well as society. Second, in extant writings on these more even-handed definitions allow for gossip, scholars have hinted at linkages to gossip's functional as well as dysfunctional side power (e.g., Emler, 1994). Third, power is a mul- (e.g., Dunbar, 1996; Tebbutt, 1995). Here, we draw tidimensional construct (French & Raven, 1959; upon and adapt these neutral conceptualiza- Hinkin & Schriescheim, 1989); as such, it has tions, defining workplace gossip as iniormal sufficient breadth to capture a variety of work- and evaJuative talk in an organization, usually place gossip effects. Finally, power is often a among no more than a few individuals, aJbouf critical asset to employees (Pfeffer, 1992). another member of that organization who is not Although the focus of our model is the gossiper- present. recipient dyad, it is important to keep in mind Although laypersons and academics (e.g., that such dyads are embedded in social net- Ayim, 1994) occasionally may suggest that gos- works. Mutual friends and acquaintances of the sip encompasses informal communication gossiper and recipient can influence the prolif- about objects or events—not just people—our treatment focuses on talk about other persons. We delimit our definition in this manner for two reasons. First, in scholarly writings on gossip in ' The source may be either a supervisor, subordinate, or peer of the recipient. That is, the direction of gossip may larger society (e.g., Eder & Enke, 1991; Harris, either be upward, doivnwfaid, or lateral. 1993; Rosnow & Fine, 1976), researchers predom-
  • 3. 430 Academy oi Management Review April inantly treat the concept as communication tential ability to influence behavior, to change about people. Second, the American Manage- the course of events, to overcome resistance, ment Association (AMA) recently asserted that and to get people to do things that they would the grapevine may include a wide range of in- otherwise not do" (1992: 30). Finkelstein has re- formal communication, whereas gossip focuses ferred to power as "the capacity of individual solely on information about people (Smith, 1996). actors to exert their will" (1992: 507). Based on lust as there are distinctions between gossip these writings and the writings of others (French and other forms of informal communication, & Raven, 1969; House, 1988; Shackleton, 1995), we there are important distinctions among different define power here as the ability to exert one's kinds of gossip. A review of relevant literature will, influencing others to do things that they points to three dimensions useful for making would not otherwise do. In the model we specif- these distinctions: sign, credibility, and work- ically focus on the gossiper's power over gossip relatedness. Following writings on feedback recipients. (e.g., Ilgen, Fisher, & Taylor, 1979), we define The multidimensionality of power is well rec- sign as the positivity or negativity of the infor- ognized. French and Raven (1959) advanced a mation being related. When gossip consists of typology of power that remains popular (e.g., favorable news about others—for example, stat- ing that "Mary received a raise"—its sign is Atwater, 1995; Davis & Schoorman, 1997; Hinkin positive. When gossip consists of unfavorable & Schriesheim, 1994), distinguishing among five news about others, its sign is negative.^ kinds of power that one individual (whom we call Person A) can have over another individual Credibility is the extent to which the gossip is believable—that is, it is seemingly accurate and (whom we call Person B): coercive power, reward truthful. Message credibility has been the sub- power, legitimate power, expert power, and ref- ject of considerable research in the fields of erent power.^ Although organizational scholars communication, marketing, and social psychol- have offered other power typologies (e.g., ogy (e.g., Boehm, 1994; McCroskey, 1969; Slattery Finkelstein, 1992; Yukl & Falbe, 1991), French 8f Tiedge, 1992). A recent review attests to its and Raven's original classification is the most importance as a communication feature (Self, widely accepted and adopted. Their typology is 1996). particularly useful for describing individual- Consistent with prior literature (e.g.. Morrow, level power, which is the focus of our model. 1981; Tushman, 1979) in which authors have dis- Hence, our propositions pertain to four of these tinguished between work-related and non-work- power types (coercive, reward, expert, and refer- related communication, we distinguish among ent) that we expect gossip to influence. (We do work-related (professional) and non-work- not consider legitimate power as an outcome related (social) gossip. We define worfc-reJated- because it is largely based on one's position— ness as the degree to which gossip is focused on that is, hierarchical rank—rather than on social a subject's work life, such as job performance, processes.) Our predictions refer to the French career progress, relationships with other organ- and Raven dimensions, but we draw from a izational members, and general behavior in the range of power and influence writings to de- workplace. velop those predictions. Definition and Types of Power Also essential to our model is the concept of ^ Coercive power is the power that emerges from Person power. Pfeffer has described power as "the po- B's belief that Person A has the ability to punish him or her. flewaid power is the power that emerges from Person B's belief that Person A can provide him or her with desired ^ Within the categories of positive gossip and negative outcomes. Legitimate power is the power that emerges from gossip, it is possible to make additional distinctions. For Person B's perception that Person A has a legitimate right, example, gossip can be negative if it describes an unfortu- based on position in the organization, to influence him or nate event that befell someone (e.g., a broken leg), but it can her. Expert power is the power that emerges from Person B's also be negative if it describes unethical behavior. Here, we belief that Person A has special knowledge or expertise that interpret gossip as negative when it constitutes a "smear" Person B needs. Finally, referent power is the power that that could detract from a subject's reputation. Positive gos- emerges from Person B's attraction for and desire to be sip, however, tends to enhance a subject's reputation. associated with Person A.
  • 4. 2000 Kuiland and Pelled 431 THEORETICAL BACKGROUND AND relates negative news about a third party, recip- HYPOTHESES ients may infer that the gossiper also could Figure 1 presents our model. In the following spread negative information about them (Yerk- sections we develop propositions about the il- ovich, 1977). Because such information can dam- lustrated linkages. age reputations and/or careers (Emler, 1994; Fine, 1977; Glazer & Ras, 1994; Tebbutt, 1995), negative gossip may constitute an implicit Linkages Between Gossip and Power threat by the gossiper. French and Raven (1959) One main effect of negative gossip may be proposed that when Person B perceives that Per- enhanced coercive power. When the gossiper son A can administer punishments. Person A has coercive power over Person B. Along the nGURE 1 same lines, other researchers (e.g.. Hunt & Proposed Model of Gossip and Power Nevin, 1974; Tedeschi, 1972) have advanced the notion that implicit and explicit threats can en- hance power and influence.* Those who feel Gossip features: threatened may comply in order to avoid retri- - credibility - work-relatedness bution (Kipnis, Schmidt, & Wilkinson, 1980). Thus, negative gossip may give the gossiper coercive power over recipients. Reward Proposifion i; 7n a wort seffing, nega- power tive gossip will enhance the gossiper's coercive power over gossip recipients. Positive gossip, in contrast, is likely to affect reward power. When a gossiper shares positive news about another worker, recipients may infer that the gossiper also could spread positive in- Coercive formation about them. Because such information power can strengthen reputations and/or careers, pos- itive gossip shows the ability to distribute (al- Positive beit indirectly) desired outcomes. French and gossip Raven (1959) suggested that when Person B per- ceives that Person A has control over valued outcomes. Person A has reward power over Per- son B. Along the same lines, Etzioni (1961) pro- posed that control of material and symbolic re- Expert wards are a basis for power. Additionally, Negatives power gossip Emerson asserted that power "resides in control '' There may be limits to the effectiveness ol implicit threats (e.g., the threat of spreading negative information) in attempts to gain power. First, if the gossiper has few con- nections to others, recipients may be less concerned about Referent the gossiper's ability to spread dark secrets. Second, some power news—for example, information that is hard to remember— may be especially difficult to spread (Zimbardo & Leippe, t 1991), Third, as our Proposition 7 suggests, recipients may be less afraid of the gossiper when they have a good relation- ship with him or her. Moreover, those vrho do feel threatened may strive to decrease their dependence on the person mak- Context factors: ing the threat (Bacharach & Lawler, 1980; Tjosvold, 1995). As - relationsh ip quality Bacharach and Lawler have noted, coercion "should be most - organizati onal culture effective when the target is highly dependent on the user" {1980: 177).
  • 5. 432 Academy of Management Review April over the things [another person] values In those who condemn gossip from an ethical short, power resides implicitly in the other's de- standpoint will be especially hard pressed to pendency" (1962: 32). Resource dependence the- find anything redeeming about negative gossip. orists (e.g., Salancik & Pfeffer, 1977), too, have advanced the notion that power comes from the Proposition 4a: In a work setting, gos- control of relevant resources—resources that are sip will reduce the gossiper's referent important to others. Hence, by revealing the gos- power over recipients. This effect will siper's ability to control an important resource be stronger for negative gossip than (reputation), positive gossip may give the gos- for positive gossip. siper reward power over recipients. The competing argument is that gossip en- Proposition 2: In a work setting, posi- hances referent power. As gossipers share tive gossip will enhance the gossiper's news, they draw recipients into their social cir- reward power over gossip recipients. cles (e.g., Dunbar, 1996; Eder & Enke, 1991). These recipients, in turn, may appreciate being in- Gossip in general, whether positive or nega- cluded. Moreover, through gossip, recipients tive, is apt to influence expert power, for it can might realize that the gossiper is on the inside of facilitate an exchange of data and help build a a social network. This realization is apt to make knowledge base (e.g.. Code, 1994; Dunbar, 1996). recipients more interested in knowing and be- When a gossiper shares information about oth- ing liked by the gossiper. Consistent with this ers, the recipient may learn more about the or- notion, impression management scholars have ganization's values. As Heath (1994) has ob- found that people can enhance their image by served, stories shared by coworkers can help managing information about others with whom employees understand principles by which their they are associated (Gardner & Martinko, 1988). organization operates. Additionally, gossip can If gossip enhances referent power, this effect reveal that the gossiper has relevant knowledge is apt to taper off at very high levels—that is, as about persons in the work environment. As the the frequency of the gossip and the pool of re- gossiper demonstrates such knowledge (an abil- cipients increase. As Levin and Arluke have ob- ity that depends, in part, on the gossiper's net- served, a person who gossips too much "may work centrality), the recipient may come to view become defined as a 'big mouth' or a 'yenta' who the gossiper as a source of useful information, will 'talk to anyone about anything,' as a person and the gossiper may thereby gain expert who cannot be trusted to keep a secret or to be power. discreet with 'privileged information'" (1987; 16). Proposifion 3: In a work setting, gossip Moreover, when gossipers talk incessantly will enhance the gossiper's expert about others, they may become resented for us- power over gossip recipients. ing so much of recipients' time. Thus, we offer the following. In the case of referent power, we expect gossip to have competing effects. One possibility is Proposition 4b: In a work setting, gos- that gossip reduces referent power, for gossip sip will have a curvilinear effect on may be seen as a small or petty activity. As the gossiper's referent power over re- mentioned earlier, in religious writings and cipients; it will enhance referent other sources of guidance and education, gossip power until it reaches a very high is often denounced as idle, immoral, or improper level, at which point it will detract (Levin & Arluke, 1987). Socialized by such teach- from referent power. ings, many persons perceive gossip as repre- hensible, and they look down on those who en- gage in the behavior. Gossip, therefore, may Moderators of Linkages Between Gossip and detract from the referent power of the gossiper. Power This effect is likely to be particularly pro- The strength of the above linkages may be nounced when gossip is negative. As described influenced by characteristics of the gossip and earlier, positive gossip can enhance the reputa- by contextual factors, including organizational tion of its subjects, whereas negative gossip culture and the relationship between gossiper tends to destroy subjects' reputations. Hence, and recipient.
  • 6. 2000 Kmland and Pelled 433 Features of the gossip. As described earlier, perceive that the gossiper is attempting to mis- one particularly relevant characteristic of gos- lead them. As Zucker (1986) has suggested, indi- sip is its credibility. Upon reviewing a variety of viduals perceived as providing accurate infor- empirical findings and conducting their own mation are more trusted than those who share study. Slater and Rouner (1998) concluded that inaccurate knowledge. message credibility has considerable influence on judgments of source credibility.^ Thus, gossip Proposifion 5; The effects of gossip on that lacks credibility can lead a recipient to coercive, reward, expert, and referent view the gossiper as a noncredible source. Even power will be moderated by gossip if the recipient's view of the gossiper is not credibility. Any tendency for gossip fo widely held, he or she may assume that others enhance the four power types will be share this view, for a common cognitive bias is stronger when credibility is high than the faJse consensus effect: the tendency to over- when it is low. Any tendency for gos- estimate the prevalence of one's own opinions sip to reduce referent power will be or experiences (Kelley, 1967; Whitley, 1998). Ac- weaker when credibility is high than cording to Fiske and Taylor, "Researchers con- when it is low. sistently find that consensus information (i.e., Like credibility, the work-relatedness of gos- the opinions or experience of others) is rela- sip may play a moderating role. Rewards (e.g., tively underutilized in the judgment process" high performance ratings and promotions) and (1991: 93). They explain that those "who agree punishments in the organization (e.g., demo- with us are more likely to come to mind when we tions and firings) are based largely on an em- attempt to infer what others will believe" (1991: ployee's work-related behavior. It is, in fact, il- 75). Recipients, therefore, may infer that the gos- legal to take many personal events (topics of siper also lacks credibility with others and will social gossip), such as marriage, a major illness, not be believed when sharing negative or posi- or a change of housing, into account when de- tive gossip. Hence, when gossip credibility is termining such rewards and punishments (Holl- low, recipients are less likely to view the gos- witz, Goodman, & Bolte, 1995; Madison & Knud- siper as someone with coercive or reward son-Fields, 1987). Although some managers still power. consider those personal factors when allocating In addition, credibility may affect the relation- resources, legislation (and the possibility of ship between gossip and expert power. If recip- costly lawsuits) constrains their ability to do so. ients believe that a gossiper's information is Thus, the employee who engages in work- inaccurate, they may begin to question or doubt related gossip has a greater ability to influence any future information the gossiper relays. As a rewards and punishments in the workplace than result, that gossip will contribute less to, and does an employee who engages in gossip about may detract from, the gossiper's expert power. In other topics. line with this reasoning, Krackhardt (1990) has Work-related gossip is also particularly likely found that employees with more accurate infor- to shape expert power. Fiske and Taylor (1991) mation about the informal network have higher have pointed out that a given context can en- reputational power than those whose informa- courage us to attend to some information more tion is less accurate. than other information. Being in the workplace Lack of credibility also may diminish any pos- makes employees particularly attuned to work- itive link, and enhance any negative link, be- related information. When the recipient is in a tween gossip and referent power. Recipients work context, "professional" topics such as a may resent the gossiper who seems to relate person's salary, promotion, and recognition gen- far-fetched or incorrect information, for they may erally have more relevance than do divorce, plastic surgery, or other "social" topics. Thus, a gossiper who provides work-related information ^ Although message and source credibility are conceptu- about others is especially likely to be used as an ally distinct, they are often closely related. Indeed, credibil- information source and seen as an expert in the ity is a complex feature, and that complexity may make it workplace. more challenging to measure, compared to other features of gossip. Those who test the proposed model should keep this In addition, the work-relatedness of gossip caveat in mind. may diminish any negative link between gossip
  • 7. 434 Academy ol Management fleview April and referent power. Recipients are less likely to moderated by gossiper-recipient rela- perceive the gossiper as wasting their time at tionship quality. Any tendency tor the office when the gossip is relevant to that negative gossip to enhance coercive setting. Hence, they will be less resentful of the power will be weaker when relation- gossiper when the work-relatedness of gossip is ship quality is high. Any tendency for high. positive gossip to enhance reward power will be stronger when relation- Proposition 6: The effects of gossip on ship quality is high. coercive, reward, expert, and referent power will be moderated by the work- Relationship quality also may shape gossip relatedness of the gossip. Any ten- effects on referent power. Gossip is more likely dency for gossip to enhance coercive, to enhance referent pow^er when the quality of a reward, and expert power will be relationship is high. If the gossiper and recipi- stronger when work-relatedness is ent have a close and trusting relationship, the high. Any tendency for gossip to re- recipient is apt to view such gossip as appropri- duce referent power will be weaker ate, for informal communication is characteris- when work-relatedness is high. tic of high-quality relationships (Fairhurst, 1993; Lee & Jablin, 1995). Consistent with this logic is Gossiper-recipient relationship quality. Like "halo effect" research (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977), the nature of the gossip, the context of that gos- which has revealed "a tendency to evaluate all sip—specifically, the quality of the relationship components of a target person in the same way between gossiper and recipient—may act as a once a general evaluation, positive or negative, moderator. Relationship quality is the degree to is formed" (Fiske & Taylor, 1991: 256). Thus, in the which a relationship is characterized by mutual context of a strong relationship, any positive support, informal influence, trust, and frequent link between gossip and referent power will be information exchange (Lee, 1998). Employees stronger. Also, when relationship quality is who have a habit of gossiping with each other, high, recipients who frown upon gossip in gen- for example, can be characterized as having a eral may be more forgiving of the gossiper. high relationship quality. Much of the literature Hence, any negative link between gossip and on relationship quality pertains to supervisor- referent power will be weaker. subordinate dyads or leader-member exchange theory (Dansereau, Graen, & Haga, 1975), but Proposition 8: The effect of gossip on one can also characterize peer relationships in referent power will be moderated by terms of relationship quality (Kram & Isabella, gossiper-recipient relationship qual- 1985). ity. Any tendency for gossip to en- Negative gossip is less likely to enhance co- hance such power will be stronger ercive power when relationship quality is high. when relationship quality is high. Any If a recipient trusts a gossiper, that recipient tendency for gossip to reduce such may believe the gossiper will avoid harming power will be weaJcer when reiafion- him or her. Even if the gossiper is spreading ship quality is high. negative news about others, the recipient may be confident that his or her own dark secrets will Organizational culture. Another moderating not be revealed by that gossiper. contextual factor may be organizational cuJfure: Positive gossip, however, is more likely to en- the "system of shared values (that define what is hance reward power when relationship quality important) and norms that define appropriate is high. A recipient who is a close friend of a attitudes and behaviors for organizational gossiper may believe that gossiper will try to members (how to feel and behave)" (O'Reilly & help him or her when possible. Thus, if that Chatman, 1996: 160). In some organizations the gossiper is spreading positive news about oth- culture advocates considerable formal commu- ers, the recipient is especially likely to think the nication, while discouraging informal communi- gossiper will do the same for him or her. cation (Smeltzer & Leonard, 1994). If there is a cultural injunction against informal communi- Proposition 7: The effect of gossip on cation, then employees will be constrained in coercive and reward power will be their use of gossip to spread news about others.
  • 8. 2000 Kurland and Pelled 435 Gossip recipients may recognize these con- refined conceptualization and specific predic- straints and conclude that gossipers have few tions about the phenomenon. On the practitioner opportunities to help or harm reputations. The side, the proposed framework illustrates that, effect of gossip on reward and coercive power, contrary to the adage "small people talk about therefore, will be weaker. other people," gossip can make a person quite Also, when culture encourages formal commu- "large" in an organization. At the same time, the nication and discourages informal communica- model shows conditions under which gossip tion, organizational members may not look to may backfire. An understanding of such dynam- gossip as a source of information. Evidence has ics of gossip is likely to help organizations and shown that individuals refrain from an informa- their members capitalize on this widespread tion-seeking strategy if they expect the strategy genre of informal communication. to have high social costs (Miller & Jablin, 1991). In an antigossip culture, seeking information from a gossiper may have such costs. Conse- quently, it may be difficult for the gossiper to REFERENCES gain expert power via gossip. Atwater, L. 1995. The relationship between supervisory The link between gossip and referent power, power and organizational characteristics. Group and too, may be shaped by culture. An antigossip Organization Management, 20: 460-485. culture may reinforce a recipient's belief that Ayim, M. 1994. Knowledge through the grapevine: Gossip as gossip is wrong or immoral. Thus, any tendency inquiry. In R. F. Goodman 8t A. Ben-Ze'ev (Eds.), Good gossip: 85-99. Lawrence: University oi Kansas Press. for gossip to reduce referent power will be stron- ger when the culture discourages such informal Bacharach, S, B., & Lawler, E. J. 1980, Power and politics in orgranizafions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. communication.^ Baird, I. E. 1977. The dynamics o/ organizafionai communi- Proposition 9: The effects of gossip on cation. New York: Harper & Row. coercive, reward, expert, and referent Berger, C. R. 1994. Power, dominance, and social interaction. power will be moderated by organiza- In M. L. Knapp & G. R, Miller (Eds.), Handbook of inter- tional culture. Any tendency for gossip personal comniunication: 450-507. Thousand Oaks, CA: to enhance coercive, reward, and ex- Sage. pert power will be weaker when the Berlo, D. K. 1960. lilie process of communication: An introduc- culture discourages informal commu- tion to theory and practice. New York: Holt, Rinehart, St Winston. nication. Any tendency for gossip to reduce referent power will be stronger Boehm, L. E. 1994. The validity effect: A search for mediating variables. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, when the culture discourages infor- 20: 285-293. mal communication. Bok, S. 1934. Secrets: On tJie ethics of concealment and rev- elation. New York: Vintage. CONCLUDING REMARKS Burt, R. S., & Knez, M. 1996. Trust and third-party gossip, In R. M. Kramer & T. R. Tyler (Eds.), Trust in organizations: The proposed model contributes to both man- 68-89. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. agement research and practice. On the aca- Code, L. 1934. Gossip, or in praise oi chaos, ln R. F. Goodman demic side, it is—to the authors' knowledge— & A. Ben-Ze'ev (Eds.), Good gossip: 100-106. Lawrence: the first theoretical model of workplace gossip University of Kansas Press. and its consequences. Noon and Delbridge (1993) Daniels, T., Spiker, B., & Papa, M. 1997. Perspectives on or- took a significant step with their thought- ganizational communicaiion (3rd ed.). Madison, WI: provoking discussion of gossip in organizations Brown and Benchmark. and their call for research on the topic. Our Dansereau, F., Graen, G., & Haga, W. J. 1975. A vertical dyad model takes their work a step further, offering a approach to leadership within formal organizations. OrgranizafionaJ Beliavior and Human Performance, 13: 46-78. Davis, J. H., & Schoorman, F. D. 1997. Toward a stewardship ^ It is possible that some employees will reject the values theory of management. Academy of Management Re- of the dominant culture and appreciate the individual who view, 22: 20-47. goes against it (e.g., by gossiping in an antigossip culture). These employees may respect that gossiper ior taking such Davis, K. 1953. A method of studying communication patterns a risk. in organizations. Personnel PsychoJogy, 6: 301-312.
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Kurland is an assistant professor oi management and organization in the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, where she teaches courses in organizational behavior, business ethics, and leadership. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. She researches gossip, telecommuting, gender issues, the social impact of technology, and ethics and incentives.
  • 11. Academy of Management Review April Lisa Hope Pelled is an assistant professor of management and organization in the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, where she teaches courses in organizational behavior, managing interpersonal relations, and multicul- tural management. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University. Her research areas include organizational demography, workplace emotions, communication, and conflict.