The Informal Communication Network: Factors Influencing Grapevine Activity

Article excerpt

Although the grapevine is an inevitable part of organizational behavior, we know very little about how managers perceive the characteristics and functioning of this informal communication network. A survey was developed to examine managers' perceptions of the factors associated with grapevine activity. Of particular interest was to determine the extent managers' positions within the organization affects their perceptions of grapevine activity. The results demonstrate that 92.4% of companies surveyed had no policy to deal with the grapevine, and managers and organizations usually didn't take an active role in managing/controlling informal communication networks. The results also indicated that the managers' level of knowledge about grapevine characteristics, causes, and outcomes was affected by their organizational position. Finally, specific conditions are discussed that impact grapevine activity.

The "grapevine"(*) or "rumor" is the major informal communication medium in an organization. As the name suggests, the grapevine is entwined throughout the organization with branches going in all directions. Rumors are often a rapid form of communication. They spread quickly, uncontrollably and, once started, are often hard to stop. Because rumors can harm both individuals and the organization itself, managers must consider how to control or manage rumor mills.

The purpose of this research is to review literature concerning factors associated with the operation of the grapevine, which is the informal communication network that exists within organizations. As a consequence of the review, a questionnaire was developed to measure managers' perceptions of and ability to monitor and/or control the grapevine. Based on the results of that survey, recommendations will be made as to how managers can more effectively deal with the grapevine.

One additional focus of the present study was to measure to what extent perceptions of grapevine activity were different among levels of management. In other words, did managers' positions within their organizations have an influence on their perceptions of grapevine activity?

Review of the Literature

Researchers agree that the grapevine is an inevitable part of organizational life; informal networks are a natural consequence of people interacting.(1,2) Lending further credibility to the prevalence of the grapevine are studies documenting the extent of grapevine use. One study by De Mare(3) identified three levels of communication within organizations: the informal grapevine, the formal organizational communication patterns, and the opinion leader level. De Mare further contended that 70 percent of all organizational communication occurs at the grapevine level. Several other national surveys also found that employees report using the grapevine as a communication source more than any other vehicle.

Other researchers have attempted to identify factors associated with the prevalence of the grapevine. For instance, Allport and Postman(4) identified two conditions that control the prevalence of the grapevine - importance of the communication subject to the speaker and listener and the ambiguousness of the situation associated with the communication. The grapevine tends to become active when the issues are perceived to be important and the situations are ambiguous.(5) Additional studies indicate that employees rely on the grapevine when they feel threatened, insecure, are under stress, when there is pending change, and when employees feel that communication from management is limited.(6)

In addition to its prevalence, researchers have also studied the speed and accuracy of the grapevine. Generally speaking, studies indicate that informal networks transmit messages faster than formal ones.(7) This means that information reaches its destination before formal communication networks begin to communicate with employees. The characteristic of accuracy has also been researched. …