By Dave Berube
I have never been known to be musically inclined, but I can recognize a great song when I hear one. One of these great songs is “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” This particular song has been recorded and re-recorded numerous times over the years by many different artists and although it may bring thoughts of animated raisins to people in my generation, it is more closely associated with Marvin Gaye.
Oh I heard it through the grapevine
Oh I’m just about to lose my mind
Honey, honey, yeah
Just as the grapevine in this song had a strong impact, the communication grapevine remains an extremely powerful medium for corporate communications. The effectiveness of grapevine communication and its use - both intentional and unintentional - should not be ignored. When coaching clients during major change initiatives, we continuously stress the importance of effective communication. Experience has shown that clients who struggle to communicate also struggle to successfully implement major change. Even post-project analysis of very successful projects often finds the company could have communicated more frequently and effectively at some point in the project.
One of the key success factors in effectively implementing a major change initiative is creating a comprehensive change management strategy and then integrating it into the project management plan. Creating a communication plan is one of the most critical elements contained within this change management strategy. In this plan, you identify target audiences, determine key messages, choose the preferred sender and select the appropriate communication channel for that message. The majority of communication channels typically chosen are formal communication channels. The communication channel that is often forgotten is the informal communication channel and this brings us to the topic of the infamous grapevine.
So what is the grapevine, how does the grapevine work and how can we use the grapevine to effectively communicate during major change? I am sure that the grapevine is as old as time itself, but I will discuss its context within modern organizations.
Every organization has both an informal and formal organizational structure, as well as formal and informal communications. Simply stated, the grapevine is a type of informal communication channel. It’s all about people communicating directly with other people outside official channels of communication. Our background and experience influence how we view concepts. For example, my background in electronics and submarine nuclear power often leads me to relate concepts to equations to enhance understanding. Personal experiences over the years related to the grapevine also can be translated and simplified into an equation to help us understand how the grapevine works. The amount of communication or “chatter” on the grapevine can be explained by the following equation:
Grapevine chatter = information void + WIIFM + recent news + insecurity
The laws of supply and demand apply equally to grapevine chatter and economics. An information void exists when the information demanded exceeds the information supplied. The supply and demand of the information are not defined by the organization, but by the individual person who desires the information. An information void will be filled with something - either rumors or valid information. The larger the information void is, the greater the amount of chatter in the grapevine.
What’s in it for me (WIIFM) seems to show up in many places when we are talking about organizational change. Regardless of the situation, when change occurs, our natural tendency is to translate this into a WIIFM context. This is what we are listening for. How does this change affect me, my pay, my family, my free time, etc.? Whether that WIIFM is good or bad, it creates a vested interest. When people have a vested interest, they will want information. The greater the impact on WIIFM, the greater the amount of chatter on the grapevine.
Many organizations are stunned at how breaking news hits the grapevine at breakneck speed. Even something as simple as an office remodeling (occurring in our offices right now) can generate significant grapevine chatter. The fresher the story, the greater the chatter on the grapevine.
The impact of the WIIFM factor is exponentially compounded by the level of insecurity that exists. The greater the amount of insecurity that exists within the organization, the greater the amount of chatter that will exist on the grapevine. For example, with the current fragile state of the economy, one can easily see how this factor can become extremely high.
As stated earlier, an information void will be filled. When the desire for information is high and the number of facts that are known is low, the number of rumors flying is huge. Most of us have experienced this firsthand and sometimes it is not a pretty sight. Regaining control of information in the midst of flying rumors is extremely difficult. The longer a rumor is allowed to fly, the more difficult it is to replace it with valid information. While some people try to fight rumor with rumor, the only effective way to combat a rumor is with facts. When a large number of rumors exist, an even larger number of facts must be communicated to combat the rumors.
Leveraging the Grapevine
Knowing the factors that make up grapevine chatter - information voids, WIIFM, recent news and insecurity - we can proactively intervene with frequent and effective communications. Fill information voids with accurate information before rumors materialize. Proactively communicate when breaking news is expected. When information (such as impending mergers and acquisitions) is about to be communicated, be prepared and react quickly after the message is released. When communicating change initiatives, ensure that you communicate the impact of the change on the individual.
Addressing the factors associated with grapevine chatter can minimize, but never totally eliminate the amount of informal communication occurring. However, by better understanding the grapevine, we can successfully leverage it as part of our overall communication strategy. One of the tenets of a good communication strategy is evaluating the effectiveness of your communication. This is accomplished by obtaining feedback. What better way to gather feedback than to take advantage of an existing channel of communication?
Tapping Into the Grapevine
Over the course of my career, I have been able to tap into the grapevine at your typical places: the water cooler (scuttlebutt in Navy terminology), the coffee pot and the smoke break area. Tapping into the grapevine is not normally achieved overnight. Grapevine communicators are a very selective bunch. They will not share all information with everyone. There must be some level of relationship and trust established, and building relationships and trust takes time. To accomplish this, you must get out of the office, talk with people and, most of all, listen.
But while the traditional grapevine is thought of as being a face-to-face or oral type of communication, this is no longer the case. Advances in technology and recent trends in social networking have significantly transformed the modern grapevine. Informal communication now occurs through email, texting, Twitter and on social networking sites, such as Facebook and Myspace.
Implementing major change in an organization is a complex and challenging task. In the end, creating organizational change is about cumulatively creating change in individuals. Successfully leading major change requires successfully leading individuals. To successfully lead individuals through change, we must be able to communicate effectively. We must find new ways to connect to our people and communicate in every imaginable way. That includes tapping into the grapevine. Without it, we might just about lose our mind. Honey, honey, yeah.
Dave Berube, a Senior Consultant for Life Cycle Engineering (LCE), has more than 30 years of experience in leadership and management. His expertise includes behavioral change management, project management and development, and process improvement within various types of organizations. www.LCE.com.