THE GRAPEVINE EFFECT

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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?

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10 Comments

  1. Great article Natella❤️! How do I deal with gossip? When a person start talking about another person who are not with us, I tell about beautiful qualities of that person. In this way, I change the subject from negative to positive and inform the gossiping person that I am not interested in listening to their stories. Because of my attitude, no body is gossiping around me.

    1. Guler, You have indeed created a very professional and respectful approach towards preventing the negative aspects of the Grapevine Effect from building momentum. I’m betting that your actions do not go unnoticed and your teammates appreciate the fact that any sensitive or confidential information they share with you is in good hands.

  2. When I was in my twenties I had to work for a place filled with gossip. Everybody was gossiping about everybody. It was a nightmare to work there. Unfortunately I was not strong enough to deal with the grapevine effect and simply had to run away from that company.

  3. One of the keys to understanding the dynamic of the Grapevine Effect (Either in your workplace, industry, or other) is to be able to identify the Head Grape. The Head Grape is responsible for not only starting rumors but ensuring that those rumors then build momentum and spread like wildfire. It’s quite obvious that no confidential information can ever be shared with the Head Grape. On the other hand, if you ever have strategic information that can benefit you or your company if spread through the grapevine but you would prefer to remain anonymous as the source, plant a seed with the Head Grape and let the grape vine take your message to the masses.

    1. Hi Jason, I am very interested in this whole Head Grape concept. Do you believe there is usually one person behind the entire organization’s grapevine who basically runs it all – from starting a rumour, making sure it build momentum and spreads company wide? Or do you mean the head grape changes each time depending on the subject of each new gossip? Thank you!

      1. Hi Natella. In my experience positive work environments don’t have a Head Grape. They have a Head Cheerleader spreading positive information. Those organizations that have problems with negative gossip typically have that one person that does control or lead the gossip network. Aka: the “Head Grape” It’s a position that every gossiper aspires to achieve. The Head Grape is obsessed with negative gossip. They have a need to know everything about everyone around them and if they don’t have all the info available they will fill in the blanks as they see fit. They build and lead a network of fellow gossipers (Minions) to help spread their message or use as a source for new information. They can work from the shadows or be quite obvious in their actions but the one common factor is they disrupt the unity of the team and can make life miserable for their targets.

        1. Jason, this is very interesting to me. I have seen various grapevine networks – from positive to neutral and to negative. Different people have been behind the gossip with varying levels of involvement. It simply never occurred to me that it could be one mastermind behind the entire operation – whether it’s a “Head Cheerleader” in a positive environment or a “Head Grape” in a more negative :). What happens if /when the Head Grape is removed from the picture for one reason or another? Does the grapevine still exist with a new Head emerging to replace the old Grape?

  4. Grapevine channels are usually much faster than the formal channels of information transfer. That’s why the grapevine culture persists in organizations – many people rely on it.

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