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The Grapevine

 

Disciplines > Communication > Organizational Communication > The Grapevine

What it is | How it works | Managing the grapevine | See also

 

The 'grapevine' is significant to everyone in organizations, either as a means of learning news or perhaps as an irritation.

What it is

The 'grapevine' is a term originated by Booker T. Washington where he describes slaves keeping up to date through the 'grape-vine telegraph'.

Today the term is used to generally mean a means of informal communications within organizations. In particular it is used for spreading news about events within the organization rather than as simple social chatter.

Some statistics about grapevines include:

  • 40% of information about the company is received via the grapevine.
  • Around 45% of this appears before the official communication.
  • 33% of job information arrives via the grapevine.

In practice, malicious rumors and inconsequential gossip are relatively uncommon, keeping the grapevine open for useful and important information.

How it works

The grapevine works through trust that sources will not be betrayed to the formal management. This trust also extends to the information provided and most people will trust this before official communications which they see as serving the organization before its people.

In this way networks of people develop who know what others are interested in and who know that they can be trusted with the information. This trust also means the grapevine is effective in giving social support.

Within the network structure of the grapevine there tend to be common patterns where key individuals act a switchboards, sending messages to individuals, whilst others broadcast widely. Most people only tell a few others, making the liaison positions important to sustain and speed information travel.

A part of this trust equation is that information tends to travel horizontally, as managers may be perceived with insufficient trust (a classic question that a manager can ask to kill grapevine trust is 'Who told you this?').

Most grapevines are surprisingly efficient at getting information across the organization as people deliver it to those who they think will  be interested. In consequence, those who receive it pay immediate attention to it. This makes it a useful medium for getting important messages around.

The trust engendered in the process of delivering messages through grapevine will also extend to working together. The grapevine hence has benefits in creating a cohesive workforce where transaction costs are reduced.

Managing the grapevine

Many organizations have tried to suppress their local grapevines but few have succeeded. To quash such informal communication requires an almost Stalinist zeal for punishing anyone remotely connected with it. And even then you would have limited success.

The first thing to do with the grapevine is to listen to it. Even if you are in a privileged position, you may well learn a lot from it, and finding people to tell you the 'word on the street' can be very enlightening.

From the grapevine you may well learn real and useful news. You may also learn unwelcome things, for example whether your management style is appreciated or not, and how successful your strategies actually are in practice.

f you can hear the grapevine, then you can respond to it. In particular if there is negative and damaging talk, then you can provide facts to correct misunderstandings.

Trying to pour information into the grapevine is a hazardous activity as you can be severely criticized for trying to manipulate it. It is also a poor channel in that there are no guarantees that everyone will hear your message and that it will get re-interpreted in the re-telling.

See also

Diffusion, Trust principle

 

Nicoll, D. C. (1994). Acknowledge and use your grapevine. Management Decision, 32, 6

Hull, W. H. (1994). Beating the grapevine to the punch. Supervision. August 1994

Freeland, D. B. (1994). Try peer pressure; Getting skeptical employees to buy in. Communication World, 1, 3

LaBarre, P. (1994). The other Network. Industry Week. 243, 17

 

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