Evil Tongues at Work? The Unmanaged Spaces of Organizational Gossip
Ad van Iterson
Maastricht University (The Netherlands)
City University, London (UK)
Audencia Nantes Ecole de Management (France)
Call for papers
Gossip is historically and stereotypically seen as pejorative women's talk, and from an organizational perspective is often viewed as an unreliable and even 'dangerous' form of communication, in large part because of its secretive and subversive nature. Hence, the claim that there are 'evil tongues at work'. There is a common assumption that gossip is a 'problem' that should actively be discouraged, if not eliminated in the organization. The interesting paradox is that gossip occupies terrain that defies management control (see Gabriel, 1995). In this sub-theme we aim to challenge the myths, stereotypes, and assumptions associated with gossip as an under-researched discourse in and among organizations. To analyse gossip inside and between organizations affords, inter alia, a greater understanding of shifts in power circuits and broader 'upsetting' tendencies.
Rather than viewing gossip as a problem to be managed, we contend that gossip is a potentially rich source of informal narrative knowledge and information that can illuminate understanding about a range of organizational issues (see Noon & Delbridge, 1993). In adopting this position, the 'problem' shifts to one of how to capture gossip as data that can be analysed, interpreted and used in explaining 'upsetting' organizational research and management practice. In relation to the EGOS colloquium theme, it is evident that gossip is an organized human activity that is potentially utterly upsetting. Spoken or written gossip emerges from the darker side of organizations to produce overt intra- and inter-organizational changes in identity and reputation, with significant social, political and economic consequences. Through our focus on organizational gossip we too aim to address theoretical implications of upsetting events and to develop insights that help to upset the academic practice of studying organizations.
Organizational gossip points to a variety of topics of interest to scholars including those concerning relational practice, resistance, control, identity and change (Fletcher, 1999; Tebbutt & Marchington, 1997). Power is also manifest in the informal and unofficial discourses of gossip and can reflect, reinforce but also upset extant power and gender relations (Kurland & Pelled, 2000). Gossip is indeed potentially upsetting: it can be destructive and damaging to people's and organizations' self esteem and reputations. But such upsetting gossip might shift power balances in favour of less powerful members and stakeholders.
At the micro-level, gossip can express and communicate emotion, reduce uncertainty and anxiety, and act as a means of problem solving and sense making. Gossip may also reflect and sustain sexist and racist attitudes and beliefs. Gossip can therefore help create and re-create identity, while the 'micropolitics' of gossip also relate to the various ethical/moral choices people make in accepting, upsetting or colluding with various organizational hegemonic practices. In this way, gossip can represent numerous attempts to retain the status quo or change organizations. Dissent, protest, resignation, acquiescence and enthusiastic support can be among the objectives of gossip. These objectives can be present concurrently and how organizational upsetting takes place can reflect struggles for dominance among the forms, contents, processes and contexts of gossip. At the macro-level, these themes are also important and the role played by the media and governments is a crucial means for generating and controlling gossip about organizations.
Possible topics might include (but are not restricted to) the following:
- How does organizational gossip relate to knowledge, power and sense making; to social exclusion and victimization; to distress and harm; to the dissemination of information and misinformation; the masking or distortion of issues and problems?
- Are there gendered understandings, rules and roles of organizational gossip?
- What relationships exist between organizational gossip and other important concepts including trust, identity, socialization, emotion, voice, discipline, control and resistance?
- How do the cross-cultural dimensions and meanings of gossip influence organizations?
- What role and influence do the media and government have in shaping the wider social and global context of organizational gossip?
- How successful are organizational attempts to silence gossip? Conversely, in what ways can organizations benefit from gossip?
- What paradoxes about organizations and the experience of organizational upsetting are revealed by and through gossip?
- How can organizational gossip be fruitfully studied and what pitfalls and limitations are there in doing so?
We invite contributions that help us to better understand theoretically, conceptually and/or empirically the nature, role, purpose and consequences of gossip in and among organizations.
A special journal issue of Group & Organizational Management for the theme of "Gossip in/around organizations" has been successfully negotiated!
Fletcher, J. (1999): Disappearing Acts: Gender, Power and Relational Practice at Work. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gabriel, Y. (1995): The Unmanaged Organization: Stories, Phantasies and Subjectivity. Organization Studies, 16 (3): 477-501.
Kurland, N. & L. Pelled (2000), in: Academy of Management Review, 25 (2).
Noon, M. & R. Delbridge (1993), in: Organization Studies, 14 (1).
Tebbutt, M. & M. Marchington (1997), in: Work, Employment and Society, 11 (4).
About the convenors
Ad van Iterson is associate professor in the Organization and Strategy Department, Maastricht University. His interests focus on gossip, mockery and cynicism in organizations, cross-cultural differences in HRM, and Elias' civilizing theory applied on organizations (he ran a subtheme on this and well as co-organized the 14th EGOS Colloquium in Maastricht).
Homepage: http://www.fdewb.unimaas.nl/os/index.htm (under 'staff').
Kathryn Waddington is senior lecturer in the Department of Applied Psychosocial Sciences, City University. Her research interests include emotion and inter-professional practice and the role of gossip in political awareness.
Grant Michelson is associate professor in the Department of Human Resource Management, Audencia Nantes Ecole de Management. His research interests include organizational change, gossip in organizations, business ethics, and employee well-being.
Homepage: http://www.audencia.com (under 'faculty')