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I Heard It Through the Grapevine

A corporate communicator was listening to her CEO complain about how hard it was to send a strategic message to employees. "Actually," said the communicator, "I'd have no trouble at all doing that. In fact, I could get a message out in 48 hours across the entire company just by spreading a rumor through the grapevine."

The grapevine—what Webster's defines as "informal person-to-person means of circulating information or gossip"—is the unsanctioned communication network found in every organization. In my recent research, based on responses from more than 800 individuals in a wide variety of companies and industries, I learned just how the grapevine compares with more formal sources of organizational information.

I'll share some thoughts on how communicators can harness the power of the grapevine. But first, let me share what I heard from some of those 837 individuals about how the grapevine poses a significant challenge for senior management and for the formal communication channels employed by today's communicators.

What Research Shows about the Grapevine

“Would you put more credence in a speech from a company leader or in a message heard over the grapevine?”

• 47% said they would put more credence in the grapevine.
• 11% would believe a blend of elements from both messages (meaning only 42% would believe senior leadership).

Leaders are "too PC" and "too positive," I was told. "Senior leadership's 'advertising' statements are not always trustworthy," and "I tend to discount official speeches—they're too carefully crafted. I prefer the truth." Also: "Too often they paint a picture of Utopia. What world are they in?"

“Which would you tend to believe if there were big differences in a message delivered in an official newsletter (online or print) or the grapevine?”

• 51% favored the newsletter, with only 40% putting more faith in the grapevine.

Putting something in writing, it seems, tends to carry more weight than the spoken word.

"This," I was told, "is the official word everyone waits for. When something is in writing, it is likely to be quoted and displayed as evidence. At least here there is a paper trail." On the other hand, there was the concern that "online or print means it's already been filtered to be PC in the corporate culture. I don't believe it." And one caution to editors everywhere: "I believe what the newsletter says, except for those pictures of smiling employees. I've never seen any of them!"

What would you believe: a message delivered over the grapevine or what you hear directly from a direct supervisor?”

74% said they would believe their supervisor. But everything depends on the relationship employees have with their supervisors. "I'd trust my current supervisor," said one individual. "My old supervisor, no."

People tended to give supervisors higher marks because of the more personal relationship that often exists. Said one individual, "I would believe my supervisor if I could also challenge him. Since your boss can fire you he should also be able to answer all your questions."

“Would you believe the grapevine or your most trusted co-worker if there were big differences in the messages from each?”

• 89% reported they would believe their co-worker. Here again, trust was the key, as with the individual who replied, "I don't gossip with co-workers I don't trust."

When all is said and done, it comes down to accuracy, which led me to ask people, “Just how accurate is the grapevine?

57% gave the grapevine favorable ratings. They supported their response with such comments as, "Management communication usually confirms what the grapevine already knows," and "The grapevine may not be wholly accurate, but it is a very reliable indicator that something is going on," and "I believe the grapevine, but I validate it by checking with multiple sources."

The Grapevine is Alive and Well

Employees do, indeed, tend to believe the grapevine—an inevitable part of organizational life. It’s a communication channel very much alive within organizations but not sanctioned by them, a natural (and healthy) consequence of people interacting.

Research suggests that up to 70% of all organization communication comes through the grapevine, yet many senior leaders are unaware that it exists or how it operates. One study, in fact, found that while 92% of lower-level managers knew the grapevine was active, only 70% of upper-level managers knew about it. In the same study, 88% of supervisors said they understood that the absence of formal communication increased activity through informal channels—but only 54% of executives understood this correlation.

Research also finds that 80% of organizational rumor proves to be true. There may be a need for more research here, since this seems incredibly high, given what we know about how information gets distorted. Remember the child's game of "telephone," for example, where a whispered message is whispered and changes along the way from child to child.

But even if that figure is accurate--that small percentage of distorted or fabricated information can be devastating. And, remember, the grapevine is not responsible for errors.

Conditions That Stimulate the Company Rumor Mill

1. There is a lack of formal communication.
2. The situation is ambiguous or uncertain.
3. Employees feel threatened, insecure and highly stressed.
4. There is an impending large-scale change.
5. The subject matter is of importance to employees.

I think this response from my survey sums it up perfectly: "Formal communication focuses on messages the company wants to deliver, with a scope management feels is appropriate at a time management feels is right. The reason the grapevine plays such an important role is that it delivers the information employees care about, provides the details employees think they should know, and is delivered at the time employees are interested."

We will always need authentic speeches from senior leaders, well-written and well-researched articles in newsletters and first-line supervisors who are first-rate communicators. It's just that none of these strategies was created to deal with the complex web of social interactions and informal networks that exist in today's organizations.

Tapping Into the Power of the Grapevine

In many organizations, the grapevine is the major informal communication medium. The question becomes: How do we tap into that force?

Malcolm Gladwell showed us one place to start in The Tipping Point: "If you want effective, sustainable communication in an organization, you need to reach a tiny minority of exceptional individuals who are responsible for the majority of the dialogue."

His recommendation is keyed to the reality that gossip moves through groups that are split into factions (like separate departments and divisions) through people who gravitate into an intermediate position, making connections between the factions. They control the gossip flow and hold a lot of power.

Influencing the grapevine, then, begins with identifying "the influentials" who operate within it. Use a tool like Social Network Analysis to create a visual map of the informal organization to determine who and where your connectors are. Find out about their attitudes toward the company, inform them in advance, train them to be even more skillful communicators and solicit their opinions.

In conducting my research, there was no doubt as to which communication vehicle is the quickest. Some 99% chose the grapevine, which means that communicators are not going to be able to beat it to the punch. The challenge instead is to understand how the grapevine works within your organization—then determine how you can influence it.