Bad-mouthing your colleagues can actually have unexpected benefits, both for the gossiper and the company itself, says the French author of a controversial new book.
GENEVA — Rumors are like viruses: They spread fast and can affect anyone.
Should managers track toxic employees and punish the malicious tongues that lash among their team? According to French essay writer Laurence Bourgeois, the answer is No.
Grumbling, bad-mouthing and spreading rumors — true and otherwise — can produce unexpected collective benefits, argues Bourgeois, author of the new book Praising Criticism and Power Games in a Company (in French, Eloge de la Critique et des Jeux de Pouvoir en Entreprise) asserts that gossip not only is useful for the office whisperers themselves, but that it also improves a company’s overall efficiency.
Bourgeois, a French expert in human resources and management, even encourages bosses to indulge in the pleasures of the most perverse psychological games, an approach that has startled conflict specialists.
A eight-step tour of the topic seems necessary. Bourgeois bases her observations on her 20-year-long field experience, having consulted on many staff reorganizations of both multinational companies and small businesses. “In these situations, co-workers are left to themselves for a long period of time,” she says. “In such moments, the human risk is so big that they have to re-create social relationships that they’ve lost. They can do that through gossiping.”
The author believes this type of “non-standard” behavior can replace what the company is no longer in a position to provide. Bad-mouthing one’s colleagues can, in other words, represent a powerful tool of professional cohesion.
1. Rumor-mongoring is a sign of participation
“Bad-mouthers are committed and show great motivation in their work,” Bourgeois says. “They put as much heart and effort into it as into their obnoxious remarks and tasteless jokes.” That being said, they also spend a lot of time at the coffee machine. “These non-working moments are also productive for the community,” she insists.
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2. Bootlickers are the worst employees
Unlike flawless employees, bad-mouthers break out of the mold and innovate by coloring outside the existing lines. “Bootlickers, who never doubt anything or confide to anybody, have the most negative impact,” the author says. “They get involved in absolutely nothing, which shows a certain disinterest for their company life.” As for those who are usually labeled ‘negative’, they reinforce the social bond and the feeling of belonging to a group by shaping a team spirit.”
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3. Critical people are more intelligent
Bourgeois says troublemakers have one thing in common: sharp analytical capacities. “They are mostly clever and subtle, gifted with a faculty of keen observation and capable of rapidly detecting other people’s flaws,” she says. These crafty individuals may also be gifted with particular emotional intelligence — the “inner child,” which, in a natural and intuitive way, is inventive and manipulative, according to the author. “It’s a shame that this skill is never taken into account, neither in performance reviews nor in identifying potential.”
4. An unconventional manager leads well
Stepping out of one’s executive role to question existing procedures, even if it means bad-mouthing someone, is not always a bad thing. “Negative assessments are well and truly a constructive component of a critical mind in the broad sense,” Bourgeois says.
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5. Unpleasant words can lead to good performance
Feedback, whether positive or negative, often contributes to improved employee performance. “Even when it seems unjustified,” the author insists. Re-assessment involves listening first. But be careful with more fragile people, which the author describes as “empathic sponges.” For them, being the subject of a rumor represents more of a professional obstacle than a motor for progress.
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6. Leave no paper trail
“It is only fair to keep records of ambiguous emails,” the author explains. “Namely those that display excessive punctuation such as unnecessary exclamation marks or heavy-handed ellipses.” These messages are likely, one day, to be used against their author.
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7. Be direct
If you bump into your boss in the elevator or a colleague in the hall, give them a large formal smile. But to tease them — about their salary, their physique or their clothing — once their back is turned can also be healthy. “It is better to interact face to face, to have a direct dialogue,” Bourgeois says. “But very few people dare to be truly honest. Hypocrisy therefore appears to be a lesser evil.” And what if remarks about co-workers derive from misinformation? “It’s just like in a playground. It has no importance whatsoever, even if the expressed remark involves a value judgment. What counts is the cathartic mechanism, which allows a reduction of stress and tensions, as well as the improvement of team coordination.”
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8. There are limits
Downsides are always possible. “If it is OK to allow a certain level of bad-mouthing, too much gossip can cancel its benefits,” warns Bourgeois. The manager should learn to play the role of referee and moderate disputes if need be so situations don’t become unhealthy. “There should never be any scapegoats.”
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Bourgeois’ book has sparked mixed reactions. “The most stupid text I’ve ever read,” one blogger wrote. Another wrote: “Completely feckless. Confusion between gratuitous criticism and having an analytical mind. Companies need employees who are capable of the former as opposed to the latter. This book is essentially an apologia for coffee machine gossip.” wrote another.
But Bourgeois also has admirers. “I agree with several of this book’s arguments,” one wrote. “Companies must, however, make sure that these power games do not affect the performance of other employees.”