Managing the Grapevine

By Mishra, Jitendra | Public Personnel Management, Summer 1990 | Go to article overview

Managing the Grapevine


Mishra, Jitendra, Public Personnel Management


Managing the Grapevine

Grapevine is American as mom and apple pie. Grapevine is an integral part of the American political and social system as shown by, e.g., Iran-contra episode, defrocking of Jim Bakker, Boesky scandal and the demise of presidential hopeful Gary Hart, etc. It is a vital part of democracy, Franklin Roosevelt kept an ear close to it, and Richard Nixon and his plumbers tried to stifle it. What is it' Ignored by some, feared by some and used by many. It is the grapevine. That nebulous, all-seeing, all-knowing network of "truth". If you want to know the real story or the "kernel of truth" tune into the grapevine.

The dictionary gives us a definition for the grapevine which says it is "the informal transmission of information, gossip or rumor from person to person" The grapevine is the informal and unsanctioned information network within every organization. "The network helps employees make sense of the world around them and consequently provides a release from emotional stress and all informal information is undocumented."(1) Keith Davis (one of the leading authors on the subject) discovered in his study that organizational Grapevine is an expression of healthy human motivation to communicate: "In fact, if employees are so uninterested in their work that they do not engage in shoptalk about it, they are probably maladjusted."(2) Of all the things that the grapevine has been called, it is foremost - a communications network.

Since it is unstructured and not under complete control of management, it moves through the organization in every direction. "It moves upward, downward, and diagonally, within and without chains of command, between workers and managers, and even with and without a company."(3)

The term grapevine can be traced to Civil War days when vinelike telegraph wires were strung from tree to tree across battlefields and used by Army Intelligence.(4) The messages that came over these lines were often so confusing or inaccurate that soon any rumor was said to come from the grapevine. Usually, grapevines flow around water coolers, down hallways, through lunch rooms, and wherever people get together in groups.(5) The lines of communication seem to be haphazard and easily disrupted as the telegraph wires were, however, they transmit information rapidly and in many cases faster and with a stronger impact than the formal system allows.

Location of the Grapevine

Since the grapevine arises from social interactions, it is as fickle, dynamic, and varied as people are. It is the expression of their natural motivation to communicate. It is the exercise of their freedom of speech and is a natural, normal activity. The grapevine starts early in the morning in the car pools. Once everyone has arrived at work, grapevine activity takes place nearly all day long down hallways, around corners, in meetings, and especially by the coffee machine. The peak time of the days are breaks and lunch hour during which management has little or no control over the topics of conversation. In the late afternoon the work day has finished but the grapevine has not. After a short time interval, some employees meet again. They are on company softball teams, golf leagues, and bowling teams. The grapevine at that time goes into full swing again and remains active with one final activity peak at a local bar. The following day, the cycle is repeated. It is the wide range of locations where the grapevine takes place in combination with the fact that grapevine participants come from informal social groups within the organization which points out it's difference from formal management communication. Structured management uses verbal messages to communicate through the chain of command, while grapevine communication jumps from one department to another and from any level of management to another. It moves up, down, horizontally, vertically and diagonally all within a short span of time. …

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