By Kim Harrison,
Consultant, Author and Principal of www.cuttingedgepr.com
If managers and supervisors don’t attend to the communication needs of their staff, there is no vacuum of information. Instead, the informal avenue of rumors grows, frequently putting a destructive slant on organizational happenings when employees are uncertain. Some people say that up to 70% of the information employees receive is via the grapevine.
Information via the grapevine invariably moves much faster than through formal communication channels. This is its greatest attribute. Emails have now joined the grapevine communication channels, making it even faster.
The 'grapevine' is the informal communication network found in every organization. The term can be traced back to the United States Civil War in the 1860s. Since battlefronts moved frequently, army telegraph wires were strung loosely from tree to tree across battlefields, somewhat like wires used to support grapevines. The wires were used to carry telegraph messages created in Morse code (the electronic alphabet, invented in 1844) because the telephone wasn’t invented until 1876. Since the lines often were strung hastily during battle, and messages were composed in a hurry, the resulting communication tended to be garbled and confusing. Soon, any rumor was said to have been heard 'on the grapevine'.
There are four types of grapevine rumors:
Wish fulfillment - identifying the wishes and hopes of employees.
'Bogey rumors' - exaggerating employees' fears and concerns.
'Wedge-drivers' - aggressive, unfriendly and damaging. They split groups and dissolve allegiances.
'Home-stretchers' - anticipating final decisions or announcements. They tend to fill the gap during times of ambiguity.
Research shows that grapevine information tends to be about 80% accurate. Since many rumors start from someone's account of an actual event, there are strong elements of truth in many rumors. However, grapevine information often contains big errors as people put their own interpretation onto an event or information they have seen, and then pass it on in a process of partial or selective recall.
Why do people spread rumors? Humans are social animals – we need to talk to others. Chat about others helps to strengthen existing relationships. Besides entertainment value, gossiping can raise people's self esteem – we feel more important by getting information first and by the interest it creates.
It is rare to find people at different levels discussing rumors or gossiping with each other. When two people share a rumor or gossip it has the effect of putting them on a relatively equal footing.
The grapevine can play an important part in the ‘management by walking around’ approach. When managers move around the office without a particular objective, they can pick up relevant rumors. This information would not have become available if the manager had stayed in their office all day.
Managers can sometimes purposely send messages through the grapevine to test the likely reaction to a possible management decision. This can allow feedback to take place and adjustments made before final decisions are made. Thus the grapevine can contribute to a more inclusive workplace. How to minimize destructive rumors
PR practitioners can expect to encounter harmful rumors on the organizational grapevine quite often – about once a week on average, according to research. Although not always harmful, rumors can reduce employee productivity, tarnish personal reputations and interfere with organizational communication. Rumors obviously abound during restructuring and retrenchment processes – when employees are nervous about their jobs they waste time talking about the rumors and their work rate falls. External rumors are known to have hit sales, damaged corporate reputations and caused share prices to fall.
Most rumors are concerned with...