Leadership and Gossip – The Prosocial Voice

April 16, 2019

by Graeme Findlay

In my book Evolve: How Exceptional Leaders Leverage the Inner Voice of Human Evolution, I propose that there are four key levels of leadership capability. These are:

Heartfelt Voice, which allows a leader to create an inner circle of trusted allies. A leader at this level can create an environment where people feel safe to say what they think, discuss difficult issues, and celebrate each other’s success. At this level of leadership deep relationships are forged and teams have shared purpose.

Command Voice is a leader’s ability to get things done. At this level a leader delivers reliably, and only needs to ask once to get the required outcome. Their team will commit to delivering because the leader can turn ambiguity into action. This leader puts a plan into action, and delivers to their plan.

Prosocial Voice is a leader’s ability to create a positive social environment and sense of community in support of their business objectives. At this level of leadership, positive messages are conveyed through informal channels as well as formal channels – not just by the leader, but by their entire team. In these scenarios, teams interact positively with other teams and consequently spread the knowledge that their team is a good team.

Futurizing Voice is the most advanced level of leadership capability. Futurizing Voice allows a leader to introduce the concept of a change in such a way that their entire team is motivated to take coordinated action to make that change happen.

Futurizing Voice might be the most advanced of the four levels listed above, but without a doubt, the capability which puzzles people the most is the Prosocial Voice.

Part of the puzzle is intellectual; the prosocial voice is more intangible than the other modes of leadership.

Part of the puzzle is practical; even when you understand the prosocial voice, the action to take as a leader seems unclear.

However, the biggest source of bewilderment (and the biggest source of negative reaction) is about the concept itself. This reaction usually occurs when I first suggest that the prosocial voice is based on gossip.

Gossip is much maligned. Its bad reputation obscures the fact that it is an incredibly powerful ability, and evidence of a highly advanced organism. Evidence indicates that the development of indirect language and gossip led to one of the major breakthroughs in the capability of homo sapiens to cooperate in larger groups. Where there is large scale cooperation, gossip always follows. Where there is large scale cooperation, it’s always because there is leadership. For this very reason, I believe that intelligent leaders should pay attention to gossip!

When I am asked by my clients to make some observations on their organization, one of the first things I do is observe the gossip. I find it tells me more about the culture of the organization than anything I find in a PowerPoint pack or a strategy document. I also find that gossip is a powerful predictor of how collaborative an organization is. How teams talk about other teams when the boss is not around plays out in their behaviour when it is time to deliver projects that require the two teams to collaborate.

Leaders often react negatively when I suggest they should pay attention to the gossip. It seems grubby or beneath them. Resistance usually starts to break down when they begin to realise how influential gossip is in driving behaviour. The link between gossip and behaviour is one aspect of Social Identity Theory, which contends that people’s actions are heavily influenced by the social group that they identify with, and whether someone is part of their social group or not part of their social group. There is now a huge body of evidence supporting this theory. As leaders, we need to turn this theory into action.

I use the term “Prosocial Voice” for the ability of a leader to build a social environment that persuades people to work collaboratively towards the organization’s goals. The term prosocial is not new. It is the antonym of anti-social. Similarly, when it comes to leadership, I want to distinguish the power of leadership to create a positive social context as opposed to the anti-social impact of negative gossip.

A key feature of Prosocial Voice is that it is an indirect form of leadership. Rather than being leader-centric, it is follower-centric. The leader is exerting their power, but rather than exerting power over others, a leader is exerting power through others. In some ways it is the antithesis of the popular view of a leader as someone on the stage, in the spotlight. When using their prosocial voice, the leader is at the back of the room, keenly observing the flow of the organization, engineering the way that people and teams interact, identifying the desired interactions and then acting quickly to reward and embed those behaviours. The leader with the strong Prosocial Voice becomes the architect of the desired social identity.

Next time you overhear some negative gossip at the water cooler, don’t dismiss it as idle chit-chat from people who have better things to be doing. Take it as a gift. Use it to design your leadership based on your powerful Prosocial Voice.

Graeme Findlay

Graeme Findlay is the author of Evolve: How Exceptional Leader Leverage The Inner Voice of Human Evolution and an Associate Fellow at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School.  He consults to industry as an executive coach and change management advisor. Prior to specializing in leadership development, Findlay held executive management roles and was accountable for delivering operational transformations and performance turnarounds on world-scale mega-projects.  His passion for high performance teams led to academic research at Oxford University and HEC Paris. Findlay holds a Masters degree in Consulting and Coaching for Change. For more information about Graeme, please visit www.graemefindlay.com.