Gossip and the Informal Organization: How Gossiping Shapes Emergent Social Structures at Work
Greenslade-Yeats, James Reuben
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Broadly speaking, this thesis explores how workplace gossip shapes the informal organization. It comprises three papers—a review paper, an empirical paper, and a theory development paper. The review paper is the most broadly focused. It draws on cross-disciplinary gossip research to (a) provide a conceptual framework for understanding the interdependent social functions of gossip and (b) demonstrate how these functions shape key elements of the informal organization. The empirical paper focusses more narrowly on how workplace gossip shapes one key element of the informal organization—interpersonal relationships. Specifically, the paper draws on qualitative data and employs inductive analysis to build and enrich theory regarding how gossip recipients’ responses to gossip incidents shape their relationships with gossipers and gossip targets. Findings reveal three nuanced processes whereby recipient responses to gossip shape the relational outcomes of gossip incidents, all of which are initiated by recipients’ interpretations of gossipers’ intentions. The theory paper builds on findings from the empirical paper to develop a conceptual model of how recipients’ interpretations of gossip shape their relationships and behavior. This paper integrates gossip and identity research to propose that when recipients interpret gossip through the lens of their identities, this interpretive process affects their relationships and behavior in important ways. Thus, the paper provides a unique perspective on how the social information communicated via gossip gets translated into relational and behavioral outcomes at work. The thesis makes three broad contributions to the literature. First, it advances knowledge on how workplace gossip shapes the informal organization. It does so by developing conceptual frameworks for understanding the links between gossip and the informal organization and by empirically exploring how organizational members’ experiences of gossip shape their interpersonal relationships. This contribution is important because, although prior research implies links between gossip and the informal organization, little is known about how the informal organization emerges through individuals’ experiences of gossip. Second, the thesis extends understanding of the social functions of workplace gossip. Over the course of the thesis, I argue that the overarching function of gossip is to communicate social information. I also argue that recipients’ responses to and interpretations of such information are crucial in shaping the relational and behavioral outcomes of gossip. Thus, I highlight interdependencies between three core social functions of gossip—information, influence, and bonding—by contending that the social information communicated by gossip is what influences behavior and bonds people in relationships. Finally, my thesis spotlights the role of the gossip recipient in the gossip triad. By focusing on gossip as social information and on the recipient as the person who interprets and responds to that information, I contribute to a more comprehensive account of how the triad operates. Illuminating the recipient’s role is important given that most research to date has taken the perspective of either the gossiper (the person who initiates gossip) or the gossip target (the person gossip is about).