Office gossip can go from mean to nasty to vitriolic with stunning speed, all the while staying subtle and scattergun enough to cause maximum havoc, a landmark new study has found.

And it’s the under-the-radar invective at formal meetings, rather than the water cooler chit-chat, that carries the most venom, reported the study in the current Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.

But for office workers who pay attention, following the trail of blood left by those verbal knife wounds can be invaluable, study lead author Tim Hallett, assistant professor at Indiana University, said.

“Often people say, ‘I can’t tell how things get done.’ If you’re attentive, you can see who has the informal status. It can help you understand how work actually gets done.”

Hallett’s study used two years of hanging out in the teachers’ lounge, studying videotapes of 13 meetings and shadowing administrators at an urban elementary school in the U.S. Midwest in the throes of adjusting to a new, feared and unpopular principal.

In those 13 meetings, Hallett recorded 25 instances of gossip during the “business” part of the meeting, rather than the conversations before and after.

Researchers “were able to watch the power dynamics as the gossip unfolded” in an atmosphere of gossip masquerading as work.

If you’re not attentive enough to see who has the informal status, you miss the spectacle of “reputational warfare” in which an oblique criticism of someone — in this case, the new principal — escalates as other people pile on with their own criticism.

That phenomenon, in fact, is documented more closely in another study just published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology which describes blame as contagious.

“When people blame others for their mistakes, they learn less and perform worse,” said study author Nathanael Fast of the University of Southern California.

Their study tested the propensity for people to blame others in an exercise after they read an article about someone blaming others or after they read an article about someone accepting blame. Reading about blame increased the level of blame. The Fast study also tested whether people would do the same after writing about their own core values. With their self-esteem reinforced, the study said, the “blame contagion” stopped.

The teachers in their staff room argued gossip was their only weapon left against the principal, who left job advertisements in the mailboxes of teachers she wanted to shake up.

“It can be easy to miss. The teachers were good at cloaking the gossip.” The more important the target, the study found, the more indirect the gossip.

In the new principal’s early months, teachers filed so many complaints against her the education authorities investigated, but the principal was vindicated. And the gossip went into overdrive. “The gossip empowered them when they had no formal avenues left,” said Hallett.

“Ritual interactions bring us together.”

At one meeting, a teacher mentions a previous principal and another chimes in: “It was so calm, you could teach, no one was constantly looking over your shoulder. We didn’t have to do all this extra stuff.” From there, others join in.

How to combat it? “You’re not there, so you have to rely on friends when people are talking behind your back. There’s only one opportunity when you’ve got to challenge them. Otherwise, people jump in and it becomes increasingly negative.”

Changing the subject, tossing in a positive comment or reminding gossipers that the past wasn’t all that rosy are ways of deflecting the damage, Hallett said.