Sunday, November 02, 2014

Gossip and Leadership

At my law school gossip festers like the Ebola virus if it really were as nasty as CNN wants us to believe. I have no reason to believe it is not the same at other law schools. It certainly was at others I have visited. But one has be careful when discussing gossip because a massive amount of writing about it by social scientists  describes its benefits.  It makes groups more cohesive. Evidently groups can be held together and reciprocity established through gossip. It reminds of leadership. We all admire people will leadership ability, don't we? It is a gift. But hold on just a sec! Hitler was one of the most effective leaders of all time and I'll bet Nazis, especially members of the SS,  were world class gossips.

That, of course is the catch. The term leadership means nothing as a normative matter until we know the goals of the leader. And gossip can be anything from "Isn't it great that John has finally fallen in love" to "I think I smelled liquor on Jack's breath at the faculty meeting?"

I probably have seen some positive leadership in legal education although I cannot think of any right now. I've seen so called leaders throw one group under the bus to save his and the hide of others and then be labeled a leader. As for gossip, it all seems to be negative and undermining as, I have read, is characteristic of workplace gossip.[Here I must add a qualification before ranting about gossip. Gossip typically fills an information vacuum at work. Thus, when administrators are less than transparent, secretive, misleading, etc. they invite gossip. Thus, one way to minimize gossip is to provide accurate information.]

So why is gossip so attractive? First, accuracy is not required. You can simply mislead people in hopes of getting a desired reaction. You achieve your goal and maintain deniability -- "I did not say that." You can fish around for support by dropping little pieces of bait in hopes someone will grab the bait and run with it. You can slip in and out without being seen. You can tell one person one story and frame it so it appeals to his or her insecurities and then tell a similar story to someone else and custom frame it to fit that person's insecurities. Let's face it. Gossiping and hearing gossip can be thrilling but it is always at another's expense. Generally it's pretty cruel -- think SS, mobs. Mean Girls, Lord of the Flies, bullies, etc.

One thing that all recipients of gossip need to keep in mind  is that most of the time,  the person coming to you is there to use you. You are supposed to pass it on, become inflamed, protest publicly. The gossiper is not your friend. He or she is the puppet master. Ironic isn't it since the person hearing  gossip actually feels honor to be confided in. For example, if a student comes to complain about a professor, doesn't that mean you are a trusted "friend."

Do you want examples of workplace gossip? I can provide a list that would fill a blog post reaching from here to Ojus but that would just be another form of gossip. But, for all gossipers at all law schools. This is about YOU.  And for every administrator who fuels the flames of gossip because he or she is personally better off if some things are secret, you should be ashamed of yourself.

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