Grapevine is an informal system of communication that arises freely as a result of social interactions in a workplace. It follows no specific pattern and can spread in any direction through a large complex web linking various individuals with no particular structure or order. Just as the reference to the plant in the word itself suggests.
The information spread through grapevine could be of any nature – from company-wide concerns to individual people’s private lives. Grapevine can be a real pest in a workplace and here are only a few of the reasons:
- Often enough it’s like a game of broken phone – by the time the message gets to you, it passed so many hands that the original meaning is distorted beyond recognition.
- It can get out of control and affect workplace productivity.
- Anytime you mention something informally to a small group chances are your words will be repeated to other people. You cannot even blame your “trusted” co-workers for breaching the confidentiality. These are simply the rules of grapevine – what comes down the vine, goes further.
It’s how gossip works. As long as we remember ourselves, gossip has always been an integral part of human society. It even played an important role in our development as species. In fact, human language itself may have been developed so that we could gossip. As I learned through the Brief History of Humankind course by Dr. Harari, the main function of human language in the prehistoric times was not even to communicate the vitally important information about food sources, predators and other dangers, but to convey the information about humans themselves. Living in bands, it was important to our ancestors to store and share information on character traits, track records and interpersonal relationships of all other band members in order to function well as a society. After all, they needed to know who was trustworthy enough to go hunting with.
Gossip may have also played a law enforcement role deterring people from breaking societal norms. Our ancestors learned early on that the rumor of their frowned upon behavior would come out and jeopardize their social ties within the band. No one wanted to hunt alone after all!
The specifics of how exactly it all worked with the prehistoric human societies might still be theories, but these theories do help us to piece together the picture of how gossip played an important role.
Today people still bond through informal communications – whether it’s mending relationships, disclosing their needs or venting out grievances. Sometimes important lessons are learned through grapevine even if they are lessons on what to say and not to say at the water-cooler discussions. As a phenomenon grapevine is not going anywhere in the foreseeable future. So what management can do is to start utilizing this existing system of communication to everyone’s benefit. Here are some ways how:
- Acknowledge that people need an outlet to their emotions, and sharing with co-workers might be a better alternative to bottling up their stress. You never know, those informal discussions may even generate ideas for working solutions for some of the people’s problems
- Use the information received through the grapevine as feedback from the workforce and work on improving companywide communication and its timeliness to eliminate distortions and reduce the need for gossiping. (Often people gossip more in anticipation of an important announcement that is being delayed.)
- Use the existing channels for transmitting positive ideas that will boost employee morale.
Of course, as management, we can choose to ignore the grapevine and to have no part of it. But we cannot pretend it’s not there or hope it will go away one day. Grapevine cannot be chopped down or otherwise destroyed. It is the voice of the workers, even though at times a distorted and a muffled voice. And as much as the negative non-productive rumors should be nipped in the bud, everything else coming down the vine can be and should be used as an opportunity for improving current management methods and communication.
Have you ever been caught up in the environment of gossip? How did it impact you and what has worked for you in dealing the grapevine effect?