“Hey, have you heard about John? (or Mary – put any name in here)- I don’t know how true it is but …”

And so it starts: the informal communication process that exists wherever two or three people are gathered together, usually in the coffee room or around the water cooler.

The uncharitable call it gossip; the more enlightened refer to it as The Grapevine, and researchers label it ‘The informal communication network process’.

But whatever you call it, I bet it is faster than any other communication process within any company or organisation you can name! 

The problem with the Grapevine is that it is informal, the information that flashes up and down and sideways may not be accurate or in the interest of the business in which it grows and flourishes.  And often, that business has forgotten the importance of personal communication.  With a reliance on emails, memos, briefings and the rest of the electronic wizardry, many a manager actually believes that they are communication brilliantly! Yet ….

” Talking is the natural way to do business. Writing is great for keeping records and putting down details, but talk generates ideas”. — T. Boone Pickens
It also generates information and information is the very thing that a company needs to be accurate and available.  When managing for change, we are told that it is vital to keep the workforce fully informed of the impending changes and the ramifications.  Without the full engagement of management in the communication process the grapevine will flourish and spread its branches throughout the organisation; and its fruit can be bitter and poisonous.

But the problems don’t stop there.  Even if a company has striven to create a more positive communication process, it may not be the precise one required in their specific circumstances. 

In many a text book on Communication, we are warned about the hierarchal system, not just of leadership/management, but also of the communication process.

If one person reports and receives information from another person, to pass it on either up or down the chain, the probability of someone, somewhere on that chain getting it wrong is high.  It just takes one misunderstanding of the intent, or the outcome for the whole process to be thrown into chaos.

Anyone for Chinese Whispers?  Frighteningly, there are many companies that are still engaged in this childhood game.

So what about the circle formation? If each member of this network needs to have input into the decision making, then the result is going to be a slow process – and what if we have total inclusive leadership operating with this communication system? The process can have an alarming tendency to go around and around in circles – just like that merry-go-round – but where do you get off and who makes the decision? 

If the manager operates as a consultative leader then we do have a stop off point, but it is still a very slow process.

In the day to day running of any business the realities are much more interconnected and complicated. There will be the up-down-sideways and diagonal process taking place.  I have a business to run? – then I need to communicate with all the divisions within the company by one means or another. 

In the less structured and more interactive business formations which are now preferred, there is no limitation on who you can or cannot speak to.  No formal Hierarchy dictates the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to communicate, It can be very fast and very effective – but just a small word of caution – sometimes we do need to clarify.  Information across divisions can change and is often dependent on the circumstances at the time. 

The obvious answer to the merry-go-round and other disasters is in the all-channel process, where you get to communicate with the people directly involved in your project.  Where the information communicated can turn the wheels to achieve a better and more productive outcome.

Otherwise, the wonderful grapevine will take over and assumptions, half-truths and speculation will dominate the communication process in your company.  A frightening thought.

“The void created by the failure to communicate is soon filled with poison, drivel and misrepresentation.” – — C. Northcote Parkinson

The merry-go-round belongs in the fairground –  not in business.
Michele @ Trischel

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