Informal communication in an organisation is often referred to as grapevine communication. It has no official sanction but flows across the organisation with ease. Grapevine, according to research, occupies more than 70% of our time at the workplace. Hold on! Please do not conclude that people keep gossiping in the office and do no productive work. Actually, this 70% informal interaction is instrumental in expediting actions at the workplace. Puzzled? Well in this article, we shall understand the nature and fabric of grapevine communication which is beyond rumours and gossips.
Organisational communication can be both formal and informal. While formal communication is considered to be more objective and evidence-based, informal (grapevine) communication is often misunderstood as rumour mill. It is given less importance by managers while taking decisions. However, scholars in the field of organisational communication consider informal interactions highly enriching and productive. It is seen as a part of personal communication that relates to the operations of the organisation. It runs parallel to the formal network complementing or supplementing it. Backed by affinity, opportunity, or spontaneity, an informal network, fulfills the desire of people to speak and be heard; it augments mutuality and solidarity among people. This of course can enhance productivity and profitability. Nonetheless, there are certain drawbacks that make the managers skeptical about grapevine.
Before we look at the downside of informal communication, let us have a glimpse of types of informal communication (grapevine).
Types of Grapevine
Informal communication or grapevine can be broadly categorized on the basis of the direction/ network in which information flows, the transaction type, roles, and the kind of person involved.
Networks/ Direction: Keith Davis (1969) found four types of informal networks viz. Single Strand, Gossip, Cluster, and Probability Chain. In a single strand, the information flows from one person to another similar to the baton passing from one runner to another in a relay race. In a gossip chain network, there is an individual who shares messages with all the members in the network directly. In the probability chain, the message passes randomly from one person to another or from one person to many. Finally, in a cluster chain, the message passes from one to many in clusters i.e. one person passes on the message to many at one time, each one then passes on the message to many and the flow continues.
Transaction Type: A research study conducted by lssacs, Ellen, Whittaker, S. Frohlich, D., and O'Conaill in 1994, provided a taxonomy to types of informal communication viz. a)Scheduled Meetings are planned in advance by both parties. (b) Intended Interactions occur when one person seeks out another to discuss a specific topic, but where there is no pre-arranged plan to talk. (c) Short Opportunistic Interactions occur when one person happens to see another and. remembers that they wanted to discuss a particular topic with them, (d) Spontaneous Interactions occur because two people happen to see each other and get into a conversation on a topic not prepared by either person.
Roles: Informal communication is influenced by a number of roles that people play within a group. Thomas J. Allen and Stephen I. Cohen (1969) found that there are stars, liaisons, bridges, gatekeepers, and isolates in an organization. This is the reason for some persons being highly connected whereas others are isolated.
Stars stand out and have more communication links than other people. Stars develop competence and link and disseminate information to all in their network. They are considered to be opinion leaders.
Liaison is an individual who does not belong to two communication networks but is the person in the middle of the two networks.
Bridge is someone who belongs to two groups and is able to send and receive information between those two groups.
A gatekeeper is an individual who has the ability to filter information from the external environment to internal communication networks or filter information that is passed from one communication network to another communication network
Isolates are people who have withdrawn themselves from the communication networks.
Kind of person transacting: In an organisation, the position of the person participating in the grapevine also matters. Subramanian (2006) found the link (person) that was instrumental in the dissemination of informal information. It includes key person, detached intruder, deliberate intruder, and third-party intervention.
A key person is a link who has strong formal and informal organisational connectivity and can act as a bridge between the official channels and the informal network. The Key Person occupies the central position because such persons act as opinion leaders. They have access to management information so the executives consider them authentic sources. When the Key Person lets out a piece of information, the executives take it seriously and their reactions are also genuine. Key Persons in a grapevine can be persons who are old members of the organisation, or who hold important positions, or who have access to management and employee information. They tend to nurture the newcomers and are cordial with the old members. Their information is received fairly well and their opinion is respected. Some Managements use these Key Persons to learn employee opinions and problems. They also use them for facilitating change management.
Detached Intruder is a person who would not react to any information or informal talk. They are in the group because they are close to one or two active members of the group. They are, most often, good listeners (which generally goes unnoticed). However, these people have a lot of information, which they may transmit if bound to do so. A detached Intruder is a listener or information gatherer but is generally not interactive. They do not leak out information until it is extremely important. They are a part of the secretive grapevine as they are trusted by at least one of the members in the group.
Third-Party Intervention is such persons who are not regular members of the organisation; they are outsiders like consultants, trainers, maintenance staff from outsourced agencies etc. Here “Intervention” stands for involvement. These persons are instrumental in informally communicating information related to upsizing, downsizing, lay-offs, and closures because they act as change catalysts in the organisation. Thus, they act as informal information transmitters. They are connected to all the employees by virtue of their position in the organisation (consultant, counsellor, trainer etc…). The openness of the employees with them also depends on the third party intervention’s individual traits. The degree of openness between the employees and the third-party intervention, allows grapevine to flourish.
Deliberate Intruder is a person who deliberately gathers information from the grapevine of one group to pass it on to other groups. There is no rank or order attached to such kind of transmission; however, most of the managements rely on these persons for tracking the grapevine. They may act as “gatekeepers” or “pulse takers”. They may act as a participant or just act as a casual onlooker. In both the cases, their intention is to gather information to pass it on to others. The Deliberate Intruder intentionally tries to collect information from the grapevine. They either do it themselves or are asked to do it. In any case, such people carry information to higher-ups. These persons, as the study suggests, shape the perception of the management as the management heavily relies on them and, most often, blindly accepts their information as true without cross-checking. The possibilities of misinterpretation of the grapevine information are high through Deliberate Intruders. Use of these Deliberate Intruders can distance the management from the employee groups. Thus, the management may not succeed in tapping the potential of the grapevine (and the rumour mill) for positive results.
Drawbacks of Grapevine
Grapevine is backed by affinity, opportunity, or spontaneity, the desire to build relationships through the exchange of thoughts. On the one hand, it augments mutuality and solidarity, on the other hand, it spreads rumours and counters formal communication networks.
Grapevine can give rise to cliquey functioning in the organisation, which in turn induces clique politics. A small group of people at the workplace, often spend their time only with their own group members and seem unfriendly towards others. This exclusiveness attitude at once strengthens and weakens bonds among employees. The consequences can be low productivity, low morale, less belongingness, and high attrition. Therefore, many organisations consider grapevine unproductive and detrimental to the workplace.
David Krackhardt and Jeffrey R. Hanson in their article, Informal Networks: The Company Behind the Chart (1993), HBR, argue that managers usually underestimate the power of grapevine due to their faulty assumptions. In fact, if tapped, the grapevine can make the organisation more vibrant, communicative and productive. Subramanian, in her article, An open eye and ear approach to informal communication (2006), VISION, argues the same point and confirms that managers need to harness the rumour mill rather than dumping it as unofficial and unworthy. She also presents the importance of grapevine information analysis for managers who contemplate to leverage this great source of information.
Krackhardt and Hanson suggest that managers can analyze informal networks in three steps. 1) conduct a network survey using employee questionnaires. The survey is designed to solicit responses about who talks to whom about work, who trusts whom, and who advises whom on technical matters. 2) cross-check the answers and 3) process the information using one of several commercially available computer programs that generate detailed network maps. According to them, experienced network managers can use network maps to identify, leverage, and revamp informal networks. This is valuable to work with teams.
Subramanian presents learning approaches to leveraging informal networks. She suggests honing receiving and deciphering skills for managers. Receiving skills is the ability of a manager to get information in all possible ways. This includes modes and methods to gather information, active listening, observation etc. while deciphering skills means decoding skills that involve comprehending the given message with the least possible gap to enhance communicative effectiveness.
It is needless to reiterate the importance of grapevine in any organisation. It helps strengthen the human bond within the organisation. It also facilitates external networking. In this age of digital media, we all accept the value of the right information and the right to information. Grapevine is an excellent way to transact freely. It needs to be nurtured positively in organisations in order to build not just a profitable entity but also to be a happy workplace!
So next time when we engage in any informal chats, let us not forget that there is great power in this form of communication. And with great power comes great responsibility. We can make the best use of this Grapevine that shuns frivolous gossip and keeps damaging rumours away.
Davis, K., Human Behaviour at Work, New Delhi: Tata McGraw Hill (quoted in Rayadu, pp. 389).
lssacs, Ellen, Whittaker, S. Frohlich, D. and O'Conaill, B. (2005), "Informal Communication Re-examined: New Functions for Video in Supporting Opportunistic Encounters," Lawrence Erlbaum book, Video-Mediated Communication, 1994, pp. 459-485.
Subramanian, S. (2006). An “Open Eye and Ear” Approach to Managerial Communication. Vision, 10(2), 1–10.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)