Research and activities

Within the ERC Consolidator Grant project “The unknown force: How gossip shapes the functioning and performance of organizational groups”, research is conducted within the four below subprojects.

This project contributes to our understanding of why people engage in the sometimes-puzzling behavior of gossip. Specifically, we examine how self-serving (proself) and group-serving (prosocial) motives are related to gossiping. Second, by looking at how gossip recipients evaluate gossip and react to it. We predict that whether gossip recipients attribute gossip to self-serving or group-serving motives differentially affects their reactions.

First, we employ scenario studies online or in laboratory studies, in which participants imagine making decisions in specific scenarios used to capture the real-world as accurately as possible while providing experimental control (see example) or to provide insights into how people will behave in our more elaborate laboratory experiments.

Second, we employ experimental lab and scenario studies using both individual and group (computer-mediated) tasks manipulating others’ behavior, prosocial versus proself goals that can be achieved through gossiping, individuals’ social motivation, and individuals’ information processing tendencies. In these experiments, we do not use deception and incentivize participant behavior. These methods allow us to investigate real gossip behavior in a controlled environment. Take a look at an example of an ongoing interactive laboratory experiment on selfish versus other-regarding motives to gossip.

Finally, we investigate gossip behavior in everyday life using recall studies (see example) as well as an intensive experience sampling methodology in collaboration with the Amsterdam Cooperation Lab in which participants answer multiple questionnaires a day throughout their daily activities. This provides the opportunity to investigate gossip in its natural setting. Take a look at an example of the questions we aim to shed light on.

This project focuses on the consequences of gossip on group functioning and performance. In what situations and under what circumstances does gossip lead to positive outcomes, such as increased cooperation and task performance, or to negative consequences, such as decreased trust and psychological safety? In this project, we will investigate whether gossip influences group functioning and performance differently depending on the type of motive gossipers have (prosocial vs. proself) and the type of tasks teams have to perform (i.e. more divergent tasks, requiring team members to come up with different ideas and have different perspectives, or more convergent tasks, requiring team members to achieve consensus). In addition, we will investigate how gossip influences norm conformity across several situations in which different norms (such as the norm of cooperation or honesty) prevail.

We aim to answer our research questions using a variety of methods. For example, we are currently conducting a systematic literature review on the consequences of gossip. Through this project, we will establish under what circumstances gossip leads to negative or positive consequences. In addition, we will conduct several behavioral experiments which will aim to shed light on the previously raised questions.

This project aims at merging the empirical findings from the experiments conducted in Project 1 and 2 into a broader framework: a computational model that integrates all different stages of gossip in organizations.The goal is to observe how gossip shapes group re-organization and performance, while controlling for group composition and gossip reactions.

While in a laboratory setting we cannot manipulate individual traits (e.g. the number of individuals who exhibit prosocial or proself attitudes), the computational model allows us to simulate different working environments, manipulating the group size as well as the individuals propensity towards gossip.

Furthermore, gossip is not only expected to influence group processes and performance, but these processes and performance in turn are likely to influence gossip over time, i.e., there are feedback loops. As an example, extensive proself gossip might hurt productivity, which may in turn increase gossip.

Thus, a computational model will incorporate all these aspects, providing predictions on what are the key aspects that affect organizational performances with respect to gossip propagation.

Agent-based models are the perfect tool to describe situations in which individuals’ features lead to evolution at the group level.

We will first design a basic model in which the flow of gossip is affected by few main characteristics of the agents, such as their (1) prosocial or proself nature, (2) social motivation, (3) depth of information processing, as well as their (4) tendency towards cooperation.

This will first shape the network of the organisation, which will then impact the group performance. The feedback loop will then also be implemented to observe how group performance affect gossip, providing a more detailed description of the real dynamics happening in an organization.

Data collected from Project 1 and 2 will be used to describe individuals behaviours, while we will observe the resulting dynamics at the group level, such as “How do social interaction networks change?“

In further steps, other aspects can be manipulated; for example how the group task type (e.g. cooperative versus competitive) affects the evolution of the social network and how different tasks are affected by gossip.

In this project we aim to understand gossip in organizational settings and to examine the external validity of findings from the laboratory. We will investigate if indeed in natural settings, such as the workplace, people distinguish between gossip that is prosocial (aimed to protect the group) or proself (aimed to promote one’s own interests), and how different types of gossip affect employees and their groups. Processes and outcomes that may be shaped by gossip are: interpersonal trust and psychological safety, norm salience and clarity, team cooperation, performance, absenteeism. We investigate the role gossip plays in shaping organizational processes that are related to employee development and well-being, such as job crafting, mentoring, processing of formal information and feedback, networking and boundary spanning, voice, bullying. Furthermore, in this project we aim to explore the role of different contextual factors in shaping the use and consequences of gossip, such as job characteristics (e.g. ambiguity, complexity, autonomy), leadership style, team size and organizational justice. 

We plan to use a variety of quantitative and qualitative methods that will provide high reliability and validity to the findings. Using the critical incident technique and diary reports, we will ask employees to report on their personal experiences of engaging in gossip or receiving gossip.
In interviews, we will ask people to reflect on their gossiping behavior in relation to other behaviors they engage in at work, and the role of different contextual factors. In a longitudinal study, we aim to investigate how gossip affects employee well-being and team performance over a period of 1.5 years.

Research output

Below you will find an overview of the scientific output of the research project.

Selected presentations
Below you will find a selection of presentations the members of the Force of Gossip team gave about the research in the project.

  • A curse or a blessing? How gossip shapes the functioning and performance of organizational groups. Keynote presentation at Lorenz Workshop “The Language of Cooperation. Leiden, The Netherlands, September 2019. Beersma, B.
  • How gossip shapes group functioning: Towards an integrative theoretical framework. Paper presented in the symposium: When Gossip is Functional and When It is Not: The Bright and Dark Sides of Gossip. Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Washington DC, April 2019. Beersma, B. 
  • A blessing or a curse? How gossip shapes the functioning and performance of organizational groups. Invited Keynote lecture at the general meeting of the Kurt Lewin Institute, Zeist, The Netherlands, April 2018. Beersma, B.  
  • Gossip in Daily Life (Oral Presentation). 18th International Conference on Social Dilemmas, Sedona, Arizona. Dores Cruz, T. D. (2019), Winner of the award for best student presentation.

Please contact us if you would like to receive more information on the above research output.