So what is this grapevine, anyway?
Dictionary.com defines it first and foremost as a vine that bears grapes (no relevance to this post). But coming in at a close second is “a person-to-person method of spreading rumors, gossip, information, etc., by informal or unofficial conversation, letter writing, or the like.”
For a rhythmic interpretation, I turn to Marvin Gaye:
“Ooh, bet you’re wonderin’ how I knew/
about your plans to make me blue
I heard it through the grapevine/
not much longer would you be mine.”
Was Gaye singing about the workplace? Hardly. But could he have been? Absolutely.
Present in every work environment to at least a certain degree, the grapevine is employees’ way of sharing and receiving information outside of a formal internal communications system. It validates feelings and draws attention to ideas and concerns that employees may be uncomfortable sharing with management. It takes place traditionally around water coolers, in lunch rooms, and at corporate picnics and softball games. It moves quickly and transmits information (or rumors, gossip, and the like) in all directions within an organization.
The grapevine has been around for a long time and some great research was done by Keith Davis back in 1953. He stated “the grapevine is a natural part of a company’s total communication system…it is a significant force within the work group, helping to build teamwork, motivate people, and create corporate identity.”
Managers can also use grapevines to take the pulse of their organization. How is morale? What are employees most concerned about? Not infrequently, grapevines help managers uncover issues in their organization that can then be addressed, and often resolved, via more formal communication systems.
But because of their tendency to spread like wildfire to all corners of an organization, grapevines can also be damaging to workplace morale, relationships, productivity, and corporate culture if they are mismanaged, ignored, or allowed to persist in all their inaccurate glory.
The use of technology in the workplace has added a layer of complexity to this issue. Grapevines have begun to take a new shape and, in many ways, are harder than ever to manage.
A 2007 Steelcase Workplace Index Survey revealed that the days of water cooler conversations may be over. Instead, employees were taking to the break room (36 percent), a colleague’s workspace (33 percent), or their e-mail inbox or instant messenger (10 percent) to collect the latest gossip.
A survey on trust and risk in the workplace conducted by Dr. Monica Whitty (Queens University Belfast in Ireland) of the same year found that 35% of women and 33% of men in the UK discussed office gossip over e-mail.
The abundance of e-mail, instant messaging, and social networking means office rumors can spread very quickly and to multiple people at once, and thus have a more widespread, detrimental effect. And watch out when it comes to office gossip that takes on a written form. In some cases it can even be used against employees or companies in legal matters.
Of course, not all office gossip ends up in the courtroom, and the likelihood of being arrested for ranting about one’s company’s policies is slim to none. Regardless, it seems safe to say that a new, virtual grapevine is here to stay. The question is whether and how managers will respond to the role of technology in disseminating gossip before it’s too late.
Until next time…
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