Lines of communication for healthy organizations include both grapevines and official communication channels. The term “grapevine,” referred to Civil War telegraph lines because they looked as such when viewed through the trees. This term has lasted more than 150-years and is claimed as one of the fastest methods of moving internal communication through an organization.
This same process, however, which supports a healthy organization, has its pitfalls. When the grapes produce rumors, the health of the organization is at stake. Rumors or forms of gossip are distortions of truthful communication. In Ross’ article on wrongdoing, rumors left unmanaged have the potential to damage an organization more than reality. In my credit union experience, management has understood the value of relaying important information, in a timely and efficient manner. From empirical data gathered and analyzed, management determined that in the absence of truthful information, employees fill in the gaps with their own version of the story.
From a national study of middle managers, Harcount, Richerson and Wattier reminded leaders that employees communicate in one of three ways: a) formal channels, b) grapevine, and c) network communications. Network communications consisted of defined employees across multiple departments to form networks, or work groups. The findings of the research pointed to network communication as the employees’ best source of information. This group appeared to be a combination of the formal and grapevine methods of disseminating organizational communications by offering an informality that came with the tenure of and relationship of the individuals within the network, and the defined formality established by the selection of these individuals into the group.
Ross’ approach suggested management squelch the rumor mill at the on-set of wrongful information. To eliminate gossip from an organization is a futile activity. Speaking from my position as a man of faith, my argument for these comments looks first to a Biblical perspective that realizes gossip is part of the human experience. King Solomon warned humankind against the ills of gossip, describing it as a betrayal of confidence, an act of separation, and an activity to avoid (Proverbs 11:13; 16:28; 18:8, 20:19; 26:20; & 26:22, New International Version). With all of his wisdom, King Solomon never suggested eliminating it, instead he described it and explained why it was important to avoid. Through this knowledge, leaders need to understand that gossip is going to occur. The challenge is control and not elimination. Based on years of management experience, it is my assertion that both grapes and rumors travel the same vine.
Contrary to Ross’ assertion, a more recent article written by S. Subramanian suggested an “open eye and ear” process to leveraging informal communication and building formal communication outcomes. The approach facilitated harnessing the strength of the grapevine by reversing the direction of the typical formal communication chain. Subramanian explained that the manager becomes the receiver and the sender forms the message, making this a sender-centered process. The objective is for the manager to become the “key person” and tap the grapevine when needed. It required the skills of a nurturer. One that is credible, respected, and likable.
Borrowing insight from an article on squelching the rumor mill, employee anxiety raised the level of organizational gossip. Management of Kroy, Inc., in Scottsdale, Arizona, as a result of a leveraged buy-out took these actionable steps to demonstrate a commitment to a healthy and supportive style of open lines of communication: a) removal of management’s office doors, b) frequently held employee communication meetings, c) improved visibility of management with dealers, vendors and employees, and d) accepting feedback from a variety of employee sources and incorporated those ideas into the decision-making process. Today’s global leaders can glean important inference from these actions that include very defined and actionable steps. For instance, if employees believe management operates in secret, remove the doors. This specific act demonstrated a commitment to an open door policy through its more than literal display of the philosophy.
Although those actions seemed a requirement for an organization mired in rumors and distrust, leaders do not need to wait for organizational chaos before taking action. Almost a decade ago, a writer for the Credit Union Executive Journal recommended a proactive approach to establishing communication ground rules to limit the cause for rumors. Four of the suggestions involved: a) defining confidentiality and giving specific examples, b) cultivating pride within the workplace, c) explaining to employees how gossip and speculation impede organizational progress, and d) taking formidable and visible action when dealing with unsolicited gossip.
It is true that people cannot control what other people say; however, it is management’s responsibility to encode and decode messages. This accountability extends to cover the content of organizational communication and vision. Employees expect management to provide reason and purpose as well as the instructional detail when communicating vision. Including the “why” a business decision was made and the visibility of senior management to address employee concerns improved our credit union internal employee satisfaction survey for 2012. With a rating of 86%, employees listed the delivery and content of important decisions as one of the top-five rated activities.
Sometimes leaders, like myself, find it effective to heed advice that has survived for decades. In 1969, K. Davis wrote about grapevine communication among lower and middle managers. This research pointed out that grapevines demonstrate remarkable versatility and flow of communication within an organization throughout all levels. Through upward, downward and diagonal lines of communication, management supports the health of the organization utilizing the grapes flowing in all directions. The challenge, as I see it, is to crush the rumors through quick and accurate resolve, but keep the grapes.
Davis, K. (1969). Grapevine communication among lower and middle managers. Personnel Journal (Pre-1986), 48(4), 269 – 272.
Harcount, J., Richerson, V., & Wattier, M.J. (1991). A national study of middle managers’ assessment of organizational communication quality. Journal of Business Communication, 28(4), 348 – 365.
McMillan, S. (1991). Squelching the rumor mill. Personnel Journal, 70(10), 95-99. Retrieved from http://0-search.proquest.com.library.regent.edu/docview/219754350?accountid=13479.
Ross, K. (1996). Office wrongdoing: Quieting the rumor mill. Getting Results …for the Hands – on Manager, 41(8), 7-7. Retrieved from http://0-search.proquest.com.library.regent.edu/docview/214235351?accountid=13479.
Subramanian, S. (2006). An “open eye and ear” approach to managerial communication. Vision, 10(2), 1 – 10.
Tanner, R. (1998). Shutting down the rumor mill. Credit Union Executive Journal, 38(2), 15-15. Retrieved from http://0-search.proquest.com.library.regent.edu/docview/208803512?accountid=13479.