Management for the masses: Heard it through the grapevine

Indiana University Kelley School of Business  8.31.10No matter how many ways you try to communicate with your employees, chances are they still get much of their information from the internal rumor mill known as the office “grapevine.”  Research confirms that this informal sharing of data is often remarkably accurate, although stories do get distorted for dramatic effect.  This week’s study looked at employees’ use and perception of the office grapevine and found that, while nearly all workers used it, very few preferred to get important company information there.  The bottom line is that your employees turn to the grapevine for information when they have few other options.

Still, the grapevine does have some positive effects for most organizations.  First, much grapevine communication happens along informal channels, so information is being shared amongst people from different areas  in your company.  There are many benefits to open communication channels across organizational boundaries.  Second, your workers need social interaction at work.  It relieves anxiety, and this can be important in times of uncertainty.  At the most basic level, the grapevine facilitates the human drive for social bonds, a natural and healthy impulse.

On the other hand, information flowing on the grapevine can be distorted.  This could increase rather than squelch employee anxiety.  Additionally, research demonstrates that employees react negatively toward their companies when information is revealed via the grapevine more quickly and accurately than the organization provides it.

Your best practice is not to squash the grapevine, but use it.  Listen to what is being said, for the topics can shed clues on areas where employees are nervous or unsure.  Correct large errors and lies when you can, of course.  But understand that employees will often express concerns to one another that they will not or cannot say to managers, so the themes discussed there are important sources of feedback.

Managers can also view the grapevine as a barometer of, or even a challenge to their own communication effectiveness. Strive to provide provide clear, direct, and correct information to employees before they have to hear it “through the grapevine.”

Whitworth, B., & Riccomini, B. (2005).  Management communication: Unlocking higher employee performance.  Communication World (March-April), 18-21.

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