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Gossip For Good

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick Mulhearn
October 20, 2019

Effective communication is the cornerstone of every stable organization. Legions of experts generate hosts of listicles extolling their tried-and-true, top ten secrets to effective corporate communication—which is excellent, because communication is tough.

But what if this whole time public and private sector leaders have been missing a valuable tool in the kit? What if leaders expended as much effort on cultivating informal communications as much as they spend on word-smithing blog posts and all-hands emails? What if leaders gossiped?

It feels sordid to acknowledge the hold that gossip has on us; all the ways that our world is shaped by informal, peer-to-peer communication—but we can’t deny the truth of our lives. The fulcrum of every office culture is the break room or the water cooler. The currency of our social interactions in the workplace is information. And although all-hands emails and blog posts formally transmit the information leaders intend to be communicated, informal networks are simultaneously transmitting information in a less structured manner. This is a natural system, an information ecosystem, that evolves in any aggregation of people. Leaders should recognize the value of this resource rather than decry its taint.

We are frequently enjoined to, “Snuff out,” gossip or, “Stop enabling,” it, but what we should be doing is cultivating it for good. It’s just a question of how to play the game.

The Complex System

Everyone loves a complex system. One could argue that the 21st Century is the era of complexity with complex global social networks, machine learning, quantum computing and our increasingly frantic lives defining our culture. Informal communication networks are complex systems, too, and can thus be mapped, defined and even utilized. With the right model, then, gossip – informal communication across an ad hoc network – can be actively employed for organizational communication.

Goldenberg, et al., suggests using a technique called stochastic cellular automata—a tool which is capable of describing a population of individual players interacting within a system—to map an informal communications network in order to actively disseminate information across it. Their study concluded that while informal networks are often composed of people with, “Tenuous or even random relationships,” they are as effective as formal systems at transmitting information. Their results showed, though, that while these, “Weak ties,” were as effective as the, “Strong ties,” of a formal network at communicating information, the quality of the information degraded as it permeated through the network. This is essentially why gossip is derided as a source of information: it’s noise, a distraction.

But being aware of gossip’s limitations and the structure of its dissemination gives the thoughtful leader an opportunity to harness an informal network as a means of supplementing and reinforcing formal communication.

The Network

Goldberg’s study further described the value of, “Informed individuals,” in perpetuating information within a system. These people, “Activate,” a network and drive information across it.

 Stanley Milgram’s “Small World Problem,” similarly proposed that our social interactions interconnect across our culture via special individuals he referred to as, “Principal points of mediation.” He found that no matter our social remove from one another, ultimately we’re closely connected via these super-connected people. This is what we’ve come to understand as Six Degrees of Separation: Milgram asserted that it’s a small number of people—influencers, if you will—connecting the rest of us to each other.

 In an earlier study Paul Lazerfeld and his colleagues found similar effects of informed individuals on information diffusion within a network. In their study, “Opinion leaders,” became conduits for information to the larger body.

It’s identifying these individuals and harnessing their affect that is the key to actively managing gossip.

Goldenberg and his colleagues found that activated networks often were more effective at communicating information than formal networks largely due to this interconnectedness, but also that informal communication reinforced information transmitted via formal systems. Gossip sustained the message from formal communications rather than undermined it; thus savvy leaders should cultivate gossip that specifically correlates to their formal message.

The Strategy

We all know the influencers among us, so identifying them is only a matter of asking around. Then recruit your influencers to the mission: it’s nothing nefarious; just actively employing the assets available to you to ensure the integrity of internal communications. This is information you want widely disseminated, so honestly acknowledge what you’re trying to accomplish. Think of it as propaganda, but the good kind.

Then release the same information through regular, formal channels and allow it to percolate through the organization. While newsletters, blog posts and e-mail can be ignored or forgotten, the information is still making it out into the wild, and surprisingly some people are still reading what you wrote.

The magic comes when the informed individuals embedded within your organization share what they know with people in their informal cohort as questions arise about your formal communique. Incorrect information can be corrected, and informative details added on the spot. The influencer is a respected source on the ground amplifying your message directly to your audience, mediating information between formal and informal channels.

Gossip for good.

Author: Patrick Mulhearn, MPA, is a public policy analyst for the Santa Cruz County, California, Board of Supervisors. He focuses primarily on policies relating to telecommunications and transportation infrastructure and may be reached at [email protected].









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