Grapevine Communication

Do you remember these guys? The California Raisins. I’m dating myself a bit. They first appeared on the scene in June of 1986. Look them up. It was an advertising coup for the California Raisin Advisory Board (I wonder if you even knew there was such a thing!) This claymation, pretend R&B group actually released 4 albums. But, when I see this picture, it’s their signature song and number one hit that comes to my mind, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” (Is it playing in your head right now?)

What does that phrase “Through the Grapevine” mean? You know me, I looked it up. Here’s what I found. The expression through the grapevine (or sometimes on the grapevine) is commonly used to mean ‘unofficially’ rather than through an official announcement, for example ‘I heard it on the grapevine that they’re planning to make some people redundant’. Rumors and gossip are spread on the grapevine but why ‘the grapevine’?

The term originated in the USA and comes from the telegraph system invented in the 19th century by Samuel Morse. The system required thousands of miles of telegraph wire to be installed, held in place several feet above the ground by telegraph poles placed at regular intervals along the telegraph route. People thought the wires and poles looked like the strings used to train vines so the telegraph lines became known as ‘the grapevine’. During the American Civil War rumors were often spread via the telegraph lines. When people were asked whether a particular story was true, they would often reply ‘I heard it through the grapevine’.

The Organizational Grapevine

We’ve been talking about Organizational Communication, it’s “W’s“, its Direction, and its Purposes. In each case the assumption was probably that we were talking about formal Organizational Communication. The “Grapevine” is the informal communication within an organization. It’s the “water cooler” conversation. It’s what people talk about over lunch and at break. It’s what people have to say when they’re outside of work or on social media.

Grapevine conversations often begin with phrases like, “Have you heard …?” or “Did you know … ?” or “Can you believe … ?” In those forms, they can sound a lot like gossip. Some of that will happen because people will be people and often people have an unhealthy interest in the affairs of other people. People will talk about their boss or about the last company event, or about their fears and uncertainty about job security, unless there’s something positive and exciting to talk about. You see, the organizational grapevine is not only a negative thing. It can also be positive. So, let’s look at some advantages and disadvantages to Grapevine Communication.

Advantages of the Grapevine

  1. The Grapevine spreads like wildfire. In that sense it is much more efficient than more formal communication. If you can manage the message, this is a great advantage.
  2. The Grapevine, in its rapid spread, also provides feedback more directly than more formal methods like employee surveys.
  3. The Grapevine can build unity among people as they share ideas and opinions
  4. The Grapevine is an opportunity for people to vent and is often a relief valve for people
  5. The Grapevine can be a handy supplement to formal communication as a way to get word out quickly and powerfully.

Disadvantages of the Grapevine

  1. The Grapevine often carries incomplete information and rumor as readily as it does solid information
  2. The Grapevine is not managed communication so it can be as unreliable as the telephone game with regard to the accuracy of the message.
  3. The Grapevine can consume enough of people’s time to make them less productive in their work.
  4. The Grapevine can foment hostility against leaders.
  5. The Grapevine can hamper the goodwill of an organization if the information is false or distorted negatively.

There is a Grapevine within any organization. A good leader will take care to avoid the disadvantages of it while understanding how to benefit from it’s advantages.

Nature abhors a vacuum. In the same way, organizations abhor silence from their leaders. Understand the “5 W’s,” the “4 Directions,” the “5 Purposes,” make sure your message is true and good, and communicate, communicate, communicate. That will give you the best chance to benefit from the Grapevine.

The 5 Purposes of Organizational Communication

So far in this 4 part series on Organizational Communication, we’ve talked about “The 5 W’s of Organizational Communication” and “The 4 Directions of Organizational Communication.” Each of those has given us insight from a different perspective on how communication works in organizations. This week we’ll look at the subject from the perspective of the intended purpose of organizational communication. What function is it intended to serve? As Steve Martin’s character said in the movie “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,”

“And by the way, you know, when you’re telling these little stories? Here’s a good idea – have a point.”

What’s the point of your communication? Here are 5 possibilities.

Leading

If your point is to lead, then your content and tone might include giving direction, inspiriting, motivating, encouraging, challenging, influencing, mentoring. The function of leading is often considered to be downward in direction. But, everyone influences someone. And, as John Maxwell says, “Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.” How might that look in lateral communication? What about upward communication?

Rationalizing (knowing the “Why”)

Comedian Michael Jr. has a video in which he illustrates the truth behind the statement, “When you know your why, your what becomes more clear and has more impact.”

The point of this communication is explaining the reasons for things (not about making up excuses after an action has been taken). In one context, it is downward communication; however, rationalizing is also important for enabling workers to bring issues to the attention of management, using upward communication to do so. If a worker identifies a motivation problem, for example, s/he may communicate this to management and use rationalization to highlight the potential impact of the problem on operations and profit.

Problem Solving

The point here is self-evident. Most organizations hold regular meetings to discuss issues such as production cycles, delivery times, price models and other areas where unusual situations could arise that may affect the performance of an organization. In these meetings, organizational communication plays an important role in addressing problems, brainstorming potential responses and finalizing solutions. In this way, a company obtains maximum benefit from the abilities of those involved in the communication, which can flow in all directions.

Conflict Management

Conflict in the workplace can lead to the loss of talented employees, the lodging of grievances and possibly lawsuits. Managing conflict by bringing all parties together to discuss their differences in a safe, moderated environment is an important function of organizational communication. This type of communication usually involves all three directions of communication, and, although discussions may be informal, the final decisions are usually communicated formally.

Gaining Compliance

Gaining the compliance of employees is necessary for them to adhere fully to instructions. I think of compliance in two ways. One is compliance of the hands. This can be won by decree, order, and/or disciplinary action (or the threat of it). This type of compliance is appropriate in command and control situations where orders must be followed for life-and-death reasons. However, in most organizations, this type of compliance can lead to the attitude of the proverbial child who is, “Sitting down on the outside, but standing up on the inside.”

The other kind of compliance is that of the heart. To do this, management needs to listen to feedback from the staff and to take account of their ideas and comments. Feedback or two-way communication can be upward and downward or horizontal and may be formal or informal, but open communication channels are important for an organization to motivate and achieve the best performance from employees. This goes back to knowing the “why” as well.

So What?

Steve Martin’s character was irritated with his traveling companion when he said, “Have a point.” Granted, their whole situation in that movie was frustrating and irritating. But the truth remains that nobody cares for communication when the only motivation seems to be that the other person likes to hear themselves talk.

This is especially true in organizational communication. When you choose to communicate, have a point. You can start by deciding which of these 5 purposes you intend to accomplish with your communication. Everyone will be glad you did.

The 4 Directions of Organizational Communication

Have you ever played the telephone game? It’s that game where a group of people form a line and the first person whispers a message to the person next to them. Then that person whispers the same message to the person next to them and so on until, finally, the last person in the line repeats the message out loud. The final version of the message is never exactly the same as the original. In fact, it is often very different, even the opposite because someone left out a single word for example. The telephone game illustrates the challenges of communication between multiple people. Most organizations have more than two people who are supposed to be moving in the same direction. What if organizational communication happened like the telephone game?

This month we’re talking about organizational communication. Last week I wrote about “The 5 W’s of Organizations Communication” (they’re not the same 5 W’s you may be thinking of). That post was about the different components of a communication from the originator to the message itself and about the importance of feedback.

Another helpful consideration when trying to understand organizational communication is the direction in which the communication is flowing. By direction I mean along the organizational chart. Certain types of communication with different purposes flow in different directions. Understanding the various types of communication associated with each direction can be helpful in both forming and interpreting messages.

We usually think of 4 possible directions along the organizational chart for communication to flow, down, up, lateral, and diagonal.

Down

This communication is coming from the “boss” (someone above in the org chart) down to everyone else. Its purpose is usually informative or directive. It can come in any of the modes (written, verbal, memo, speech, etc). Often downward communication includes policies, rules and regulations, organizational announcements, instructions and the like.

Up

Upward flow is communication that is coming from someone below in the org chart. Its purpose is usually informative or suggestive. This communication can also come in any of the modes though speeches are not usually recommended. Upward communication often includes feedback on how things are going on the front lines, requests, or complaints.

Lateral

Lateral flow is communication among peers in the organization. Its purpose is usually collaborative. This communication can come in any of the modes. One popular mode is an interdisciplinary team meeting. Lateral communication often includes discussion of issues, resolving problems, and sharing information.

Diagonal

Diagonal communication is a bit less intuitive than the others. We expect upward and downward and even lateral communication. Diagonal flow is communication from the top of one discipline to a lower part of another and vice versa. Its purpose is usually educational. For example, let’s say the training department is developing a training video on a certain part of the operational process. A leader from training will probably reach out to a front line worker to learn about the key tasks of the job.

So What?

Imagine there is a certain task that should be done by Friday. How you formulate a message about that will depend on which direction the communication will flow. If you’re communicating up to your boss or even laterally to peers, the message will most likely take the form of a reminder, a “follow up,” or a suggestion. On the other hand, if you’re communicating down the organization, you might structure it as a directive.

In the same way, when you receive a message, the direction its flowing to you will help you interpret its intent. Is your boss directing you to complete the task by Friday? Is a colleague reminding you that your part of the project is due Friday? Or, is your employee following up on the commitment you made to respond by Friday?

In one sense, the directional flow of communication is a more detailed look at the Who and the to Whom from last week. In any case, the better you understand how organizational communication works, the more likely you’ll be an influence toward improving communication in your organization.

The 5 “W’s” of Organizational Communication

During the first two weeks of starting my last job, I made it a point to sit down with every member of the leadership team and office staff for a one-on-one meeting. The purpose of these meetings was to learn. I wanted to learn about each person, how they viewed the operation, their personality and style, and something about their plans and dreams. I conducted 30 interviews and asked each one of them them same set of questions. One of the questions was, “What’s one thing could we improve right now that would make the most difference? 60% of the people said, “communication.” It was the number one answer. I wonder what the results would be of a similar question in other organizations. How important and how effective is communication in your organization?

It was important enough for this group that I put together some material in the form of a short course I called “Organizational Communication” (clever, right?). During this month I plan to share four bits from that course. This week: “The 5 W’s of Organizational Communication.” Spoiler alert, It’s not the same 5 W’s you may be thinking.

WHO?

Any communication, organizational or personal, begins with “who,” the source of the communication. There is a person or a group who is wanting to initiate communication.

WHAT?

Next is the message. What is it the person or group wants to convey?

WHICH WAY?

I know, I could have said, “How,” but then it wouldn’t be 5 W’s. Here we’re talking about the channel or medium of communication. Is it verbal? If so, is it a meeting, an individual conversation, a small group? Is it written? In that case, is it a memo? Is it an email or an article or a hand-written note? Is it physical or mechanical?

to WHOM?

Who is the intended recipient of this message? Is it a single person or a group? Are they inside the organization or outside? Are they friendly or adversarial?

with WHAT effect?

How will we know if communication has taken place or been effective? By the feedback it generates. Like an electrical circuit, the amount of electricity at the source doesn’t matter. There is no effect (the light doesn’t come on or the motor doesn’t run) unless the circuit is closed. Feedback closes the communication circuit demonstrating the effect of the source’s message.

SO WHAT?

That’s a sixth “W,” but it’s not part of the list of components of communication. It’s the question I’m asking about those 5 “W’s.” Why bother thinking about those? Think about how altering only one element will change the dynamic of the communication completely. For example, let’s say all the front line workers in your organization (the to Whom), received a letter attached to their paycheck envelope (the Which Way) that said, “You should all take next Friday off.” (the What). What would be the effect of that communication (the with What effect)?

The effect of that communication would depend on the “Who.” What was the source of the message? If it was the boss, the feedback might be gratitude for the long weekend. What if the source of the message was a union organizer? How does that change the dynamic of the communication?

My example highlights two things. First, an additional factor to consider is context. If the boss was giving Friday off as a bonus because the organization is doing well, that’s one thing. If, however, the organization is struggling financially and that day off is without pay to save money, that’s a whole different dynamic. The second thing my example highlights is the necessity of the “with What effect” “W.” Feedback lets the originator know whether or not the message had the intended effect or outcome. How would the boss or the union organizer know what effect the note had? The concrete evidence would be how many people showed up to work next Friday.

The point is that you can improve organizational communication by paying attention to each component of the communication process. Good decisions about who should deliver the message, clarifying the content of the message, how it should be delivered, who should the recipients be, and how to assure you receive feedback will help to eliminate the many problems that arise from poor communication.