Networks behind gossip and gossip ties as a hidden network in organizations: The role of structural balance and accuracy in knowledge about who is gossiping

Srebrenka Letina


In any organizational context, a multitude of different kinds of relationships exist among people simultaneously. On the top of this, co-workers talk about each other in an evaluative manner. In instances when this talk is about a co-worker who is not participating in it, it is a gossip.  Gossip is an important mechanism by which the reputation of target can be influenced. We aimed to investigate in which way positive and negative ties overlap with the network of sending and receiving gossip; whether the structural balance theory can be used to predict who gossips with whom; and whether co-workers know who talks about them in a negative manner?  We analyzed the dataset of networks in eight small (16 to 40 employees) firms operating in Hungary. “Do not like” and “Would not befriend” nominations are considered as negative ties, while “Like” and “Good friend” nominations were considered as positive ties. Gossip networks (directed, sender-receiver and sender-target) were based on employee’s answers on questions about whom they gossip about whom (in the last three months) and whether the content of that talk was negative, neutral or positive for a target. In addition, they were asked who of their co-workers, if any, shares negative information about them. Due to the low density of some networks, in the analyses, we mostly used descriptive methods. Overall, positive ties were around 10 times more frequently reported, and were highly reciprocated in comparison with negative ties. Measures of network similarities revealed that around one-fifth of positive ties were conducive to sharing gossip, while most gossip sharing was associated with positive ties, and almost never with negative ties. As expected, people who gossip together tend to share more common neighbors than those who do not. We checked whether sending, receiving, and being a target of gossip are mutually related to the individual level. A positive association is found between different roles in the gossip triad. Also, those who send or receive gossip tend to do that indiscriminately regarding its valence. In respect to social balance, a motif analysis showed that imbalanced triads occurred rarely, and gossip happened mostly in balanced and positive triads, and rarely when the third party in a triad was a friend with the sender, but not with the receiver. Interestingly, in most organization studied gossip is not targeted at or initiated by specific individuals – it does not contain “hubs”. Furthermore, we looked only at the negative gossip, which was in most organizations less prevalent than positive and neutral gossip. Based on similarity indices we found that the number of negative gossip is underestimated by co-workers but shows substantial overlap with actors’ perceptions of who gossip negatively about them. Finally, we investigated whether an individual accuracy in this perception and the behavior in sending, receiving and being a target of gossip is associated with his or her position in the network of positive and negative ties. We discuss how a network perspective can advance understanding of gossiping behavior in organizations.

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