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Grapevine Communication

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In the words of Keith Davis, “Grapevine is basically a channel of horizontal communication, for it is only people working at the same level of hierarchy who can informally communicate with one another with perfect ease.”

Donald S. Simmons (1985), states that ‘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.’

In this article you will learn about –

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Characteristics of grapevine communication – 1. It is not official 2. It is always oral 3. It is pervasive  4. It is not always bad  5. It is most active.

Importance of grapevine communication –  1. Supplement to other channels 2. Quick transmission 3. A safety value 4. Organisational solidarity and cohesion 5. Feedback

Advantages of grapevine communication – 1. feedback obtained is quick  2. creates a sense of unity 3. creates a sense of unity 4. supplement 5. emotional supportive value.

Disadvantages of grapevine communication – 1.  carries partial information 2. is not always trustworthy 3. leads to hostility 4. hamper the goodwill of the organisation

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Merits of grapevine communication –  1. Quick diffusion of information 2. Organisational unity and cohesion 3. Safety control device 4. Feedback 5. Addition to other channels

Demerits of grapevine communication – 1. It increases the workload  2. Events cannot be formalised 3. More chances of red-tapism and delay tactics 4. More points for filtering the message 5. Affects the relations

Grapevine communication types – 1. Single strand chain 2. Gossip chain 3. Cluster chain 4. Probability chain

Limitation of grapevine communication – 1. Misrepresentation 2. Incomplete information 3. Detrimental pace 4. Loss of confidentiality 5. Lack of authenticity  6. Problem in fixing responsibility

Grapevine Communication

Grapevine is an informal channel of business communication. It is called so because it stretches throughout the organisation in all directions irrespective of the authority levels. Man as we know is a social animal. 

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Despite the existence of formal channels in an organisation, the informal channels tend to develop when he interacts with other people in the organisation. It exists more at lower levels of organisation. 

Grapevine generally develops due to various reasons. One of them is that when an organisation is facing recession, the employees sense uncertainty. Also, at times employees do not have self-confidence due to which they form unions. 


What is Grapevine Communication

The flow of information and communication in various directions that constitutes the formal way of communicating in an organisation. An informal network, unsanctioned yet supplementing the official channel, exists within an organisation, which is known as – ‘grapevine’.

Grapevine is the informal transmission of information, gossip or rumour from person to person. Donald S. Simmons (1985), states that ‘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.’

Keith Davis (1976) discovered in his study that “organisational 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,’ say Ralph L. Rosnow and Gary Alan Fine (1976).

However, Keith Davis notes “that grapevine is a natural part of a company’s total communication system. It is a significant force within the work group, helping to build teamwork to motivate people, and create corporate identity. It is an informal passing of information through the organisation.”


Define Grapevine Communication

In the words of Keith Davis, “Grapevine is basically a channel of horizontal communication, for it is only people working at the same level of hierarchy who can informally communicate with one another with perfect ease.”


Characteristics of Grapevine

The characteristics of grapevine communication are:

  1. It is not official but most of the grapevine is business related and quite accurate.
  2. It is always oral.
  3. It is pervasive and exists at all levels of organization.
  4. There is no proof or record of such type of communication.
  5. Grapevine is not always bad and is mostly used for faster communication.
  6. It is most active when there is change taking place or when the level of fear is high – during layoffs, acquisitions, mergers, etc.
  7. The grapevine is a normal, often vital part of any organization.

Importance of Grapevine Communication

Importance of grapevine communication:

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(i) Supplement to Other Channels: All information cannot be transmitted to the employees through the official channels. If there is one useful information unsuitable for being transmitted through official channels, it can be transmitted through the grapevine. 

(ii) Quick Transmission: The speed with which information is transmitted through the grapevine is just remarkable. Rumours, they say, spread like wildfire. Just spot a leader of the grapevine and give him some information, cleverly describing it as ‘top secret’, and within minutes, it will have reached everybody. 

(iii) A Safety Value: Apprehensions experienced by workers on matters like promotions and retrenchments become an obsession with them. Talking about them may not alleviate their fears, but it certainly provides them emotional relief. Thus the grapevine acts as a kind of safety-value for the pent-up emotions of the subordinates. 

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(iv) Organisational Solidarity and Cohesion: The existence of the grapevine proves that the workers are interested in their associates. The very fact that they talk among themselves, helps to promote organisational solidarity and cohesion. Properly used, the grapevine may even raise the morale of the workers. 

(v) Feedback: The grapevine provides feedback to the management. It enables them to know what the subordinates think about the organisation and its various activities. 


Advantages of Grapevine Communication

Grapevine channels carry information rapidly. As soon as an employee gets to know some confidential information, he becomes inquisitive and passes the details then to his closest friend who in turn passes it to others. Thus, it spreads hastily.

i. The managers get to know the reactions of their subordinates on their policies. Thus, the feedback obtained is quick compared to formal channels of communication.

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ii. The grapevine creates a sense of unity among the employees who share and discuss their views with each other. Thus, grapevine helps in developing group cohesiveness.

iii. The grapevine serves as an emotional supportive value.

iv. The grapevine is a supplement in those cases where formal communication does not work.


Disadvantages of Grapevine Communication

The disadvantages of grapevine communication are as follows:

1. The grapevine carries partial information at times as it is more based on rumours. Thus, it does not clearly depict the complete state of affairs. 

2. The grapevine is not always trustworthy as it does not follow the official path of communication and is spread more by gossip and unconfirmed reports. 

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3. The productivity of employees may be hampered as they spend more time talking rather than working. 

4. The grapevine leads to hostility against the executives. 

5. The grapevine may hamper the goodwill of the organisation as it may carry false negative information about the high level people of the organisation. 


Merits of Grapevine Communication

1. Quick Diffusion of Information:

The speed with which information is transmitted through the grapevine is remarkable. Rumours, they say, spread like wildfire. Just spot a leader of the grapevine and give him some information, cleverly describing it as ‘top secret’, and within minutes, it will have reached everybody. 

2. Organisational Unity and Cohesion: 

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The existence of the grapevine proves that the workers are interested in their associates. The very fact that they talk among themselves helps to promote organisational solidarity and cohesion, properly used, the grapevine may even raise the morale of the workers. 

3. Safety Control Device: 

Apprehensions experienced by workers on matters like promotions and retrenchments become an obsession with them. Talking about them may not alleviate their fears, but it certainly provides them emotional relief. Thus, the grapevine acts as a kind of safety-control device for the unexpressed emotions of the subordinates. 

4. Feedback: 

The grapevine provides feedback to the management. It enables them to know what the subordinates think about the organisation and its various activities. 

5. Addition to Other Channels: 

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All information cannot be transmitted to the employees through the official channels. If there is some useful information unsuitable for being transmitted through official channels, it can be transmitted through the grapevine. 


Demerits of Grapevine Communication

The formal communication has the following demerits: 

(i) It increases the workload of the line superior because all communications are transmitted through them. Thus, it leaves the superiors with little time to perform other organisational functions well. 

(ii) Every happening in an organisation cannot be foreseen; hence, action required for unforeseen events cannot be formalised. 

(iii) There are more chances of red-tapism and delay tactics in this method because executives generally overlook the interests of the subordinates. Any information upward or downward favouring subordinates is more often suppressed or delayed by the superiors. 

(iv) There are more points for filtering the message because there is a long line of superiors from the top to the bottom and, at every point, the message is filtered or distorted. Thus, it reduces the accuracy of the message. 

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(v) In most of the big organisations, contacts between the top executives and the subordinates at the lowest level are far remote. Very often they do not recognise each other. This adversely affects the relations of executives and subordinates. 


Grapevine Communication Types

1. Single Strand Chain: 

In this type of chain ‘A’ tells something to ‘B’ who tells it so ‘C’ and so on it goes down the line. This chain is the least accurate in passing on the information. 

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2. Gossip Chain: 

In this person speaks out and tells everyone the information he or she has obtained. This chain is often used when information or a message regarding an interesting but ‘non-job-related’ nature is being conveyed. 

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3. Cluster Chain: 

In this type of chain ‘A’ tells something to a few selected individuals and others also relay the information selectively. 

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4. Probability Chain: 

In this type of chain individuals are indifferent to, or not really interested in the persons to whom they are passing some information. They just tell at random, and those people in turn tell others at random. This chain is found when the information is somewhat interesting but not really significant. 

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Grapevine Communication Examples 

i. Suppose the profit amount of a company is known. Rumour is spread that this much profit is there and on that basis bonus is declared.

ii. CEO may be in relation to the Production Manager. They may have friendly relations with each other.


Where is 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 organisation which points out its 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. The grapevine, as communication, can be compared to the organisation’s formal information network. 


Why is there a Grapevine

Grapevines exist in all organisations to varying degrees. Gordon Allport describes two conditions as controlling the activeness of the grapevine; importance of the subject to the speaker and listener, and the ambiguousness of the facts. 

He relates the two with the following formula: 

R = I A

Where, 

R- is the intensity of the rumour, 

I- is the importance of the rumour to the persons communicating, and 

A- is the ambiguity of the facts associated with the rumour. 

This formula, according to Allport, means that the amount of rumour in circulation will vary with the importance of the subject to the individuals concerned, at times the ambiguity of the evidence pertaining to the topic at issue. 

The relation between importance and ambiguity is not additive but multiplicative, for if either importance or ambiguity is zero, there is no rumour. 

This formula is supported by Donald B. Simmons who states it slightly differently. He states rumours originate, grow, and spread along the grapevine in direct proportion to their importance to workers and the lack of news on a subject from official channels.


How accurate is Grapevine?

Allport and Postman’s research indicated that most rumours start as a report of an actual episode – that is to say, with someone’s perceptual experience of an event which he deems of sufficient interest and importance to communicate to others. 

Once this central theme, the actual episode, has been accepted there is a tendency to distort subsequent news or events in order to make them consistent with the central theme. 

However, Keith Davis reports from his research “that in normal business situations between 75 percent and 95 per cent of grapevine information is correct.” 

In general people tend to think the grapevine is less accurate than it is because its errors tend to be more dramatic and consequently are more impressive on one’s memory than its day-to-day routine accuracy. 

In a normal work situation, upwards of 80% of the information that comes over the grapevine is accurate. While the day- to-day accuracy may be good, people believe the grapevine is less accurate because the times it is wrong are more dramatic. 

A communication may be 90% correct in details but that last 10% is often the most important part of the message. 

Messages from the grapevine are often lacking in all the details so that the message is subject to misinterpretation; while the grapevine generally carries the truth it seldom carries the whole truth. 

An interesting note about the informal communications network is that an estimated 80% of grapevine information is oriented toward the individual while 20% concerns the company. 

This may sound very simple, however we should remember that “the grapevine is fast-paced and generally moves, free of organisational restraints, by word of mouth.” 


Positive aspects of Grapevine

Even though management does not always view grapevine favourably, it has several positive aspects.

One major advantage of the grapevine is that it is a release mechanism for stress. Bottled-up feelings prove to have negative side effects for individuals and the grapevine helps to ease this type of situation.

We know individuals like and need to talk about their work. It is an important part of one’s life, and in talking about work, the grapevine gives employees the opportunity to convert official company policies into their own language or jargon. In doing this, individuals are better able to understand the policies and are better able to cope with their work environment.

This open and informal communication also enables employees to have empathy for those who are stressed outside of the workplace. As stronger personal bonds occur among workers, a greater spirit of teamwork exists within the organisation.

As grapevine transfers information speedily, it enables individuals to think in advance, prepare for, and think through the goal changes and goal adjustments of the management before it makes any formal statements. This increases the contributions made by employees.

The grapevine also helps employees to remain efficient by quickly spreading the news of disciplinary actions. If tardiness is a problem and one person is given a day off without pay, will management be able to remind everyone immediately of the company policy? Probably not. 

Will a memo from the personnel department reach everyone that same day? That is not likely to happen either. However, will the grapevine make sure everyone is at work on time the next day? Oh, yes!

Additionally, the grapevine is a good indicator of health, morale, trends, and productivity. The grapevine reveals issues and problems being discussed by the employees and the effect of policies and procedures upon which the employees can be evaluated.

The grapevine is also a means of communication that a manager can use to increase efficiency. Managers should have some means of tapping into the grapevine. Using this method, desired information can be circulated quickly to a large group of subordinates.

Control of the grapevine is an understated responsibility of the manager. While not all the information passing through it is initiated by the management, nevertheless, the responsibility for the accuracy of information ultimately rests on the management.


Use of Grapevine Communication

Grapevine is a channel of communication which is far reaching and has a very wide scope. It is also a channel which is capable of producing damaging effects to the organisation. Due to this damaging effect of the grapevine, some managers are highly suspicious of it and want to stop it completely. 

They do this despite the fact that grapevines can never be stopped. One manager cannot stop its employees from discussing something out of their workplace. Instead, every manager should try to use grapevine in the organisation’s interest.

The grapevine can be effectively used for the benefit of the organisation in the following ways:

1. The manager should try to spot the leader. A leader in the grapevine is one who has a good control over the grapevine communication channel. He need not be a union leader or a very senior labourer.

Spotting the leader has two advantages:

(a) Harmful rumours can be stopped,

(b) Messages which are to be spread instantly can be spread with the help of a leader.

2. The grapevine can be used to understand the feelings of the employees.

3. If management has come to know about any false rumour spread by the grapevine it should immediately clarify its stand by using the official channel.

4. The management should include all levels of employees in the decision making process. The rumour mongers will not be able to spread the false rumours as every level of the organisation is involved in decision making. In this manner, the harmful effect of the grapevine will be successfully counteracted.

5. Management should make it clear to all employees that they may enjoy their personal chatting but not at the cost of work. Work is of paramount importance and no personal feeling should come in the way. Regular formal and informal get-togethers may be encouraged in this regard.

6. Management can use it as a feedback channel. They can know about the reactions and feelings of employees regarding the new policies and decisions, which otherwise would not be possible through the formal channels.


Grapevine Communication in the Workplace

No one can deny the existence of grapevines in any workplace. The issue therefore which needs to be addressed is how managers can deal effectively with the grapevine? Primarily, managers should accept the fact and decide how they can use it to their own benefit. 

Vanessa Arnold (1983) contends, ‘Managers interested in creating effective organisational communication will use information from the grapevine to improve communication throughout the firm.’

Managers certainly need special skills to deal with grapevine. They must realise that it can neither be suppressed nor can it ever die. Therefore, instead of curbing its growth, it is much better to nurture and cultivate it. 

It is essential that the manager finds out the ‘grapevine facts’ and understand how they work. The real value of grapevine should be in revealing to management those issues that generate from the grass roots and use it for the benefit of the organisation.

Since grapevine activity increases during times of uncertainty, management must provide information through the formal system of communication about key issues and events that affect employees. 

Most importantly, announcements of important information should be made well in advance of the release date so that the official announcement can create enthusiasm and interest.

Management should supply employees with a steady flow of accurate, timely information; so that the potential damage caused by the grapevine can be minimised. Any attempt to soften or distort a rumour to make things look good is not a good way to deal with the rumour. The longer a rumour circulates the more difficult it is to control.

The grapevine can be controlled with the release of prompt, clear, and accurate information on the issues important to the employees. Full facts must be presented. Formal communication lines must be kept open and the process should be made as short as possible. 

Direct memos, large group announcements, and intercom systems should be used. If employees perceive that management is providing them with facts, they will be less anxious and less emotional when rumours are heard.

The grapevine can be used to see how a new idea is received. A bit of information may be dropped on the grapevine in order to test the possible reaction to a proposed decision. If feedback through grapevine indicates an unfavourable reaction, management can reconsider the idea or alter it to lessen employee resistance. 

If the new idea is incorporated, management is thus forewarned of problems so as to be prepared with new programmes to help overcome anxiety and misperceptions.

In short, feelings and possible effects can be sensed early and the management can adopt corrective measures. John Kotter (1985), a Harvard Business School professor gives an example of a manager he knows who uses the grapevine to give new ideas a ‘trial-run’ before spending a great deal of time and money.

‘He knows who in the office has the longest tongue,’ explains Kotter. He then casually mentions this new idea to the employee and waits for the word to spread. In no time, responses find their way back to his secretary, who gives him a full report. 

Feedback is very important, and if it is positive, he goes ahead with the new plan. If the feedback is negative, it is back to the drawing board to rethink the idea. Thus, grapevine can be used to feel and judge the pulse of the employees.

Bill Hunter (1984) says, writes that some organisations create a rumour hotline or rumour control office. When an employee hears a rumour he can call the rumour office to check it out. 

By providing this service, bad rumours can be replaced with good rumours. It is suggested by Peter J. Nofel (1985), that a training program be conducted for employees on the nature of rumours so that the employees can distinguish between good and bad rumours.

To conclude, it may be said that employee communication should be carefully strategized like various advertising and marketing programs by the management at the highest level. Above all, employee communication should be consistent in its message to minimise confusion and to maximise the impact.

If employees hear one thing from one source and something contradictory from another source, they cannot understand exactly what to believe, but it leaves them with the impression that the management is also confused, not knowing what exactly it wants (and sometimes they are right!). Consistency builds familiarity and confidence in the validity of communications.

It also constantly reinforces the message, implants it deeper into the culture. Fear of the unknown, of being left out, is what drives employees who feel ‘like a mushroom’ to turn to the grapevine as their primary source of information in a gaming company.

Therefore, it is important to keep the employees ‘in the loop’ so that it makes them feel more like insiders, a part of an inner circle. It makes them feel important and needed. These are basic human motivations, nuances of human relationships and communication present in all cultures that have to be strictly maintained in any organisation.


Reasons for Existence

The grapevine exists in organisations for many reasons.

Some of them are listed below:

1. Grapevine communication, being personal and flexible can carry and spread useful information in the organisation with amazing speed. It supplements the formal channels.

2. It provides people with an outlet for their imaginations and apprehensions as well. It also helps satisfy a natural desire to know what is really going on and gives employees a sense of belonging.

3. As an early warning system, gossip allows people to think through in advance what they will do if the rumours become the awful truth. Subordinates may get an idea of what the boss is wrestling with and come up with always that may help the situation.

4. It is also capable of penetrating even the tightest security because it cuts across organisational lines and deals directly with people in the know. Bosses who choose not to pay attention to the grapevine have less credible information than those who do.

Pradip Khandwalla (1977) states that it exists because there is excessive structuring of formal workflows and excessive channelling of information flow. It becomes stifling for the employees who require some outlet to air their own views and opinions. 

They also seem to be fed by personal apprehension, wish fulfilment, retaliation, and gossip. Surprisingly, most researchers have found that most grapevine information is either true or has within it a kernel of truth. The corporate culture becomes defined by the grapevine rather than by visionary design.


Grapevine Network Communication

Professor Keith Davis, who has done a good amount of research on Grapevine, gave a brief account of how the grapevine operates. The message starts with A. He may tell it to B, who in turn will tell C, C to D and the message will spread.

 A may also discuss it with B, C, D simultaneously. Whatever the manner of spreading the message is, communication is completely informal and does not adhere to any rules or regulations.


Limitations of Grapevine Communication

1. Misrepresentation: 

The grapevine respects nobody and it may ascribe the worst possible motives to the noblest of people. Thus, one of the major drawbacks of the grapevine is that it may spread baseless or distorted news which may sometimes prove harmful even to the employees. 

2. Incomplete Information: 

The grapevine information is usually incomplete. So it may be misunderstood or misinterpreted. 

3. Detrimental Pace: 

The pace with which the grapevine transmits information may even be damaging. A rumour may have spread and caused serious damage before the management becomes aware of it and can take any rectifying step. 

4. Loss of Confidentiality: 

Confidential information often leaks out through informal communication. Thus, the network of informal communication can be used by management only with due safety measures. 

5. Lack of Authenticity: 

Informal communication spreads by word-of-mouth. It may not be supported by tangible facts. This would make the grapevine information unbelievable. 

6. Problem in Fixing Responsibility: 

Origin of information flow cannot be ascertained in this channel. It is, therefore, difficult to hold anybody responsible for spreading false information


Effects of  Grapevine Communication

Several additional factors affect the operation of the grapevine: 

  1. In wartime, the conditions for rumour are optimal. Military events are of the greatest importance. 
  2. The greater the homogeneity of the organisation, the better the grapevine will operate. 
  3. Rumours prosper best where formal communication is poor. They thrive in an environment where employees are not kept informed about anything that may be important to them. 
  4. They perform best in informal social contacts but can operate as effectively as a sideline to official meetings. In a poorly managed organisation they can chip away at morale and fuel anxiety, conflict, and misunderstanding.
  5. People start and spread rumours to enhance their status, fill gaps in social conversations, and avoid suspense over suspected events. This activity increases during times of stress, uncertainty, and in the absence of news. 

Research found that only 10% of the people in an organisation are highly active participants in the grapevine. Those are named as Bridgers, baggers and bearers. Bridgers or the key communicators receive and pass information to others. These people are primarily responsible for the success of the grapevine. 

Baggers are Dead Enders. They hear rumours but do not pass them along or fail to tell others. Beaners do not hear information and thus cannot pass along a rumour. They tend to be outside the grapevine. The key thing to remember in case of grapevine is that grapevine exists, always has and always will, and you can’t stop it. 

So managers should accept the fact and decide how they can use it to their own benefit. The real value of the grapevine should be in revealing to management those issues that generate from the grass root. 


How to Control Grapevine?

The key thing to remember is that grapevine exists, always has and always will, and it can’t be stopped. So managers should accept the fact and decide how they can use it to their own benefit.

 Managers interested in creating effective organizational communication will use information from the grapevine to improve communication throughout the firm. The real value of the grapevine should be in revealing to management those issues that generate from the grass roots. 

Hence, a smart manager will accept the existence of grapevine, pay heed to the rumours going around and act promptly to counteract false rumours. Rumours or gossip can be stopped with the help of a formal communication network which includes memos, newsletters, bulletin boards, meetings, etc.

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