Work chat apps are making you paranoid — and that’s a good thing

Your private office Slack messages about the decisions of so-and-so have more power than you think. A new study has found that just knowing the existence of an online whisper network at an organization can cause teams to change how they act to others in the group.

Existence of secret group chats motivates more discussion between opposing groups

In a new study, researchers at INSEAD, Columbia Business School, and Singapore Management University proposed that we change how we act when we know people can talk behind our backs online because private backchannels make people in the majority feel less powerful. That sense of powerlessness, in turn, “motivates majority opinion holders to process unique information offered by the minority more deeply.”

In other words, people in the majority feel like they have to take minority opinions more seriously when there’s a threat to their power. And the secret discussion opportunities that technology makes easily available provide that threat.

The power of private group chat

The researchers’ hypothesis held true in a series of experiments. The researchers found that telling participants in the majority about the existence of a private group chat was enough to spur them to reach across party lines and seek more information, ask more questions, and engage in more dialogue from participants with minority viewpoints. This held true even when only a small subset of team members actually used the secret conversations opportunities.

The mere presence of a private group chat was enough to change team dynamics. Even if their opinion was securely in the majority, majority holders still wanted to know what others were saying if they knew there was a private chat.

A force for good

Researchers suggested that the facilitation of diverse perspectives can make these online secret whisper networks a force for good. If managers want to create better debates and foster new perspectives, they should encourage these private groups chats. “When managers expect majority and minority factions to emerge and unique perspectives need to surface to make better decisions, they may want to emphasize the various conversation opportunities that team members have in order to limit the majority’s powerful position,” the study suggests.

Whisper networks already provide value for women in the workplace to warn each other against workplace harassers without fear of reprisal. This study shows that these secret backchannels can also level the playing field to not just distribute sensitive information, but to influence it.

Even though you may be one dissenting voice at the office, a private whisper network of Slack channels, group chats, and direct messages can raise your voice into one that can be heard in a crowd.