Care and Feeding of the Organizational Grapevine

By Karathanos, Patricia; Auriemmo, Anthony | Industrial Management, March/April 1999 | Go to article overview

Care and Feeding of the Organizational Grapevine

Karathanos, Patricia, Auriemmo, Anthony, Industrial Management

Executive Summary

If you've been trying to quash the grapevine in your company or if you're a pioneering soul who's long suspected that the grapevine may be more useful than its bad reputation suggests, read on. Over the past few years, research has shown that, properly managed, an active grapevine can help keep company lines of communication open - and boost the overall health of an organization.

The term grapevine can be traced back to the United States Civil War. Because the battle fronts moved frequently, army intelligence telegraph wires were loosely strung from tree to tree across battlefields, much like grapevines. Due to the reckless way the lines were hung, the messages sent over them were often garbled and confusing, leading to inaccurate communication. Soon, any rumor or unofficial command was said to have been heard "via the grapevine." It was during this time that the correlation between the grapevine and inaccuracy began. The grapevine has been an identifiable aspect of American culture ever since.

The organizational grapevine is part of the modern business world and has long been considered a necessary evil of conducting business. Managers typically have done their best to suppress this method of communication. However, some are beginning to consider it an asset rather than a liability The grapevine will remain a part of any assembled workforce, so why not harness its potential to ease communication within the organization instead of trying in vain to smother it? The grapevine is a valuable means of communication within an organization; attempts to phase it out are unwarranted and unproductive. The grapevine does not always deliver information in an ideal manner and is sometimes difficult to manage, but its advantages outweigh its disadvantages. Therefore, it should be nurtured, not pruned - and management must cultivate it carefully to reap the greatest benefits for the organization.

The grapevine in business

Webster's dictionary defines grapevine as "an informal person-to-person means of circulating information or gossip." Psychologists G.A. Fine and R.C. Rosnow define gossip as "small talk with a purpose," and gossip columnist Liz Smith has added, "Gossip is usually the news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress - it is rumor about to become fact." No matter how the grapevine is defined, one thing is certain: The grapevine is the informal and unsanctioned communication network found within every organization.

Organizational members require information to perform their jobs. When information is not transmitted through a formal system in a timely fashion, the grapevine is called upon to communicate the essential facts throughout the organization. In fact, most organizational communication consists of person-to-person informal contacts. These contacts are necessary for the smooth functioning of the organization, and they contribute to improved job performance. Some research has found that communicatively isolated workers in a large organization have lower job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and job performance than their counterparts who are engaged actively in a communication network.

The grapevine has a discernible structure. In a 1969 Personnel Journal article, Keith Davis described four primary chains of communication in an organization's grapevine:

The single-strand chain. A tells B, who tells C, who tells D, and so on. The longer this chain continues, the greater the potential for alterations to the original message. Consequently, this chain tends to produce the least accurate messages.

The gossip chain. A tells everyone he or she comes into contact with. This chain often transmits messages slowly, as there is only one active disseminator of information. The probability chain. A conveys information randomly to C and E. They, in turn, randomly tell others. In this chain, some in the organization will, by chance, get this information and some will not. …

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