“I heard it through the grapevine.”
You might know this phrase as the title of a Marvin Gaye song, but it’s also a common expression that means hearing an important piece of news through gossip.
The metaphorical “grapevine” represents the long chain of people who must pass on the news before it reaches your ears.
While most of us have experience with grapevine communication in one form or another, this type of communication can have a negative impact, especially in an office environment. A workplace gossip chain sometimes ends up spreading falsehoods, and releasing sensitive information in inappropriate ways.
However, word-of-mouth communication is a fact of life, and it also has some positives to it. This type of communication is a form of bonding that can strengthen ties between employees, and serves an important purpose in the workplace ecosystem.
Grapevine communication is indirect and informal. Basically, it means gleaning information from places other than the official source. Rumors, “he said/she said” situations, gossip, and “games of telephone” are other terms used to describe grapevine communication.
Let’s be honest—not all workplace communication takes place through official channels. Employees hang out in the break room or at the proverbial “water cooler” to talk to each other, and that sometimes includes discussing work.
Even in a remote environment, employees may meet up to have a virtual chat in a Slack channel or on an email thread as part of their business communication.
Informal communication is anything that takes place outside of these official means.
Grapevine communication as an informal communication network isn’t just about getting information. It’s also about belonging and feeling like part of a group.
Remember when you were a teenager and someone shared a piece of gossip or “insider info” with you? The information itself may have been interesting, but perhaps it also made you feel included and privy to a “secret” that other people didn’t know.
Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar theorizes that verbal gossip may have evolved as a sophisticated method of building strong social relationships, similar to the way primates bond by grooming each other’s fur.
This social bonding increases chances of survival. In Dunbar’s words, “a member [of a social alliance] can be relied on to come to one’s aid at the crucial moment when one is under attack.”
Since grapevine communication serves a basic human need, you shouldn’t be surprised to see it popping up everywhere in life—including at the office.
That said, as a manager, workplace rumors can be hard to deal with. So is grapevine communication completely inevitable?
Most businesses do have to deal with grapevine communication in one form or another. According to the American Management Association, up to 70% of all organizational communication comes through the grapevine.
However, although grapevine communication may be inevitable at the organizational level, not everyone participates equally in the rumor mill. Only 10% of individuals in an organization are highly-active participants in the grapevine, according to an article published in the journal “Public Personnel Management."
Grapevine communication provides a way for employees to connect with each other, so it’s natural that it would exist in most organizations. However, negative gossip can become a problem for a few specific reasons.
Employees sometimes have legitimate cause for resorting to the grapevine to find things out. If there’s a lack of transparency within the company, it’s natural for team members to wonder what is going on. In particular, if leadership is planning a big change (like a corporate restructuring) and this isn’t communicated properly, employees may get anxious and turn to their colleagues for information.
Everyday communication barriers can also drive people to the grapevine.
If employees feel that management isn’t interested in listening to their problems, or they fear backlash for expressing themselves openly, they might turn to their colleagues instead. To limit these negative types of grapevine communication, organizational transparency is key.
Despite its drawbacks, grapevine communication isn’t all bad. It can provide a way for team members to bond, which is especially crucial in a remote setting.
Bonus: Communication Strategies
The main disadvantage of grapevine communication is that it can spread untruths or half-truths. If left uncontrolled, it can also create an antagonistic culture of “employees vs. management”. This type of environment is more likely to arise if there are contradictions between what senior management is saying and what the grapevine is saying.
In these situations, employees tend to be evenly split in who they choose to believe. For example, research shows that 42% would believe information heard in a speech by senior leadership, 47% would believe the grapevine, and 11% would believe a mixture of both. Failure to keep an eye on the grapevine can lead to mistrust, which might ultimately culminate in increased employee performance problems or resignations.
Since grapevine communication is more or less inevitable, business and team leaders should avoid trying to shut down the grapevine entirely. Instead, they should focus on controlling the spread of untrue rumors, while encouraging healthy forms of informal communication.
There may be occasions where one or two “problem employees'' are regularly responsible for spreading harmful rumors. In that case, once the employees in question have been identified, the issue should be addressed in a one-on-one meeting. If you can, avoid sending out mass emails reminding everyone to follow company policy; this may lead to more gossip as people try to find out who is responsible.
Remember, grapevine issues don’t come out of anywhere—they stem from a lack of appropriate formal communication. It’s crucial to regularly keep your team up-to-date with weekly status updates, team meetings, and other communications from leadership.
Transparency is also an important factor in limiting the impact of rumors. Abby Herman, Director of Strategy at Snap Agency, emphasizes the importance of building an open corporate culture. “In our company it’s very important to keep a culture [where] if anyone is worried about something, they can come directly to their manager to talk about it. In my department I have an open door policy (along with an open mind), and this can absolutely help in reducing the noise when it comes to gossip around the workplace.”
Grapevine communication can help you understand what’s going on in your business. In some instances, although a grapevine rumor may seem unwarranted or unpleasant, it might actually signal an important problem that needs to be addressed.
Derin Oyekan, co-founder and CMO at Reel Paper, recommends business leaders keep an eye on what’s happening on the grapevine, as this feedback can often be valuable. “What leaders hear through the “grapevine” can often be an unadulterated look at what employees are thinking. If a leader hears quite grumbling about something making employees dissatisfied, it may be worth looking into.”
Matt Bertram, CEO of EWR Digital, adds that leaders should “use collaboration tools like Slack to encourage open communication and collaboration that involves both workers and leaders. This will reduce the risk of miscommunication and confusion.” An integrated tool like Friday.app can help you get even more from Slack and your other communication tools, making it easy to increase transparency while keeping an eye on the grapevine.
Grapevine communication is simply a part of life. Trying to remove it from the workplace is likely to be futile. In a way, managers should be grateful for the existence of the grapevine; it means your employees trust each other and are communicating amongst themselves. However, grapevine communication can easily spiral out of control if not properly managed.
Keeping communication channels open and maintaining transparency within the company is the best way of limiting grapevine communications. But when informal communications do occur, managers can’t afford to ignore them. In fact, research shows that bosses who choose not to pay attention to the grapevine have 50% less credible information than those who do.
Limiting negative gossip and keeping a pulse on the various grapevine paths are important. However, don’t forget to encourage positive grapevine communication as well. Employees don’t just want to read memos, they also want to interact through informal channels that are genuinely human.