Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: Gossiping Bosses:


..Effect of supervisor tattling on frontline employee performan

Gossips. The Good Book seriously frowns on them. According to the Good Book, they separate friends. They betray the confidence of others. They are to be shunned. But according to others, gossips are all not bad. These people go ahead to even say that gossips do some good in the community. At least, that was one of the things I was told in my literature classes, during my secondary school days. In Ama Ata Aidoo’s Dilemma of a Ghost, Act One opens with two village women returning from the riverside with their water pots on their heads. Their conversation about their lives eventually turns to tattling about the main protagonists in the drama.

I learnt that the one good thing about having gossips in the community, especially small communities, is that they tend to put people on their toes. Knowing that people will talk about you tends to check your behaviour. Individuals will think twice before doing something, knowing full well that there are prying eyes and wagging tongues lurking nearby. There are certain behaviours that people will not exhibit, in public or in private, just because they would not want to be the topic of discussion for the gossips in the community.

But whether for good or for ill, gossips are part and parcel of the human existence. It is therefore not surprising that even in the workplace, where one expects nothing but professionalism, there are still gossips. It is actually said that about 20% of discussions that occur at the workplace are among colleagues about other colleagues.

Unfortunately, workplace gossips can be particularly vicious, especially when it is done with the malicious intent of bringing someone down so that another person can get ahead. Also, because we spend a large portion of our waking hours at work, anything that makes the workplace unpleasant can be very damaging to the individual. And malicious gossip can make the office particularly disagreeable.

But just as in our villages, we are told that workplace gossip also has some advantages. At least, that is according to researchers behind a study published in the October 2018 edition of the International Journal of Research in Business and Social Science. The study was conducted among employees and supervisors from Kwa Zulu Natal Government Municipality in South Africa. The study was titled “Supervisor Workplace Gossip and Employee Job Performance: The Mediation Effect of Employee Job Engagement”.

As suggested by the title, the focus of the study was not the ordinary gossip among colleagues. The focus was on gossips by superiors and supervisors. Yes, even managers, supervisors and superiors also gossip. Superiors, human as they are, also often come together to talk about their subordinates. As a matter of fact, the only prerequisite for a gossip is one person saying something about another person to a third person. Therefore, when the boss talks about you behind your back to a third person, he or she is gossiping. Plain and simple. It occurs more often than one can imagine.

It is however important to differentiate between formal assessment sessions where staff performances are discussed and the more informal gossiping that occurs. The similarity between the two scenarios is that in both situations, the discussion is evaluative in nature. The topic of the gossip must be the skills, knowledge and attitudes of the individual on the job and, by extension, how well or how poorly the one is performing on the job.

According to the abovementioned study, supervisor gossiping about their subordinates affects the engagement levels of these subordinates and subsequently the performance of the individuals on the job. The above study, however, was quick to point out that gossiping among superiors can be of two kinds. There is the classic negative gossiping. But there is also positive gossiping, i.e. saying positive things about employees behind their backs. Researchers define positive gossiping as positive remarks made regarding the accomplishment or achievement of job-related goals and objectives, such as exemplary workplace behaviour and conduct.

The researchers asserted that when employees hear that their superiors are saying positive things behind their backs, these employees tend to become more engaged on the job. This, then, causes these employees to improve the performance on the job. However, even positive gossip can also have some negative consequences. The study found that positive gossip could lead to creation of workplace antagonism and competition among colleagues. When employees hear positive things being said about their colleagues, it is only natural that they might feel a bit of jealousy. This could lead to unnecessary antagonistic actions against the one being spoken about.

Another study seem to buttress the points raised by the 2018 Kwa Zulu Natal study. The results of that study were published in the August 2022 edition of the Service Industries Journal. The study was titled “Supervisor negative gossip and employees’ thriving at work” and was carried out among employees and supervisors in three companies in China. This particular study found, as did the other study, that when staff hear that they are being gossiped about, it affects them. As a matter of fact, gossiping was found to be a determining factor in whether employees thrive or fail on the job.

However, this study went further to state that when supervisors say negative things behind an employee’s back, it has the potential to demoralise the one. The gossip negatively affects the employee’s cheerfulness, pride, enthusiasm and energy. In other words, the gossiping can take the joy out of the job for the one. It is only natural to feel deflated when you hear something negative being said about you. It can be better managed if the gossip is a colleague. It is however a lot more damaging if the gossip turns out to be your boss.

Beyond sucking the joy out of the job, the negative gossips also affect the one’s belief in his or her ability to do the job well. Self-doubt begins to set in. If the one is genuinely doing his or her best but hears the boss saying otherwise, it is only natural for the one to begin to have some self-doubts. The fact is that employees tend to see these gossips from their superiors as a form of informal job evaluation. Therefore, if the evaluation is not positive, it will unsurprisingly hit hard at the confidence of the employee in question.

These are the factors that lead to the poor performance of employees on the job. For those at the frontline, these factors will lead to poor customer service delivery and eventually poor customer experience. Employees who are plagued with self-doubt and have lost all joy on the job will struggle to give customers the best of service. This is because frontline work involves exchange of emotions. Frontline employees whose emotions are not very positive will have problems giving out pleasant emotions to customers.

Additionally, when frontline employees feel their efforts are not being recognised, they will begin to disengage from their job. They will still come to work and put in effort but it will never be their very best. They will just do about enough to get by. Customers notice those kinds of behaviour and it affects their experience. This is why gossiping by superiors cannot be treated lightly.

The study however found that there is at least one factor that lessens the extent of gossip on employees’ performance. This is the level of organisational support. Employees who feel they have the support of the organisation are less affected by any gossip they hear than those who feel the organisation does not offer support to them. Therefore in ensuring that gossip does not get the better of employees, organisations must ensure that all employees feel supported. Structures must be seen to be working—and working for all, not just for a select few.

The easiest and most direct solution to the effects of gossiping by superiors would have been to put an end to all gossiping at the workplace. If a simple directive from Management could put an end to all forms of gossiping at work, then that would solve the whole problem. However, we all know that that would be impossible. For as long as the organisation is staffed by human beings, people will talk about other people. Colleagues will gossip among themselves, about themselves, and even about their superiors and subordinates. It is just the way it is. The best any organisation can do is to minimise the gossiping by making it easy for everyone to be able to speak out about issues concerning them. Open communication throughout the organisation might help to an extent.

From the ongoing discussion, it is clear that superiors speaking about their subordinates behind their backs has an effect on those being spoken about. Gossiping about others at work is not as harmless as others would want to believe. Supervisors and managers must know this and thus act accordingly. If the employee is not doing something well. That must be spoken about. But then it is important that the one is directly spoken to, preferably in private. In other words, if a leader is going to say something about someone who is not around, then it has to be something positive. This will help set the right atmosphere in the workplace and by so doing, help frontline employees thrive on the job and for customers to have enjoyable experiences.

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