As an HR Director I was once the gatekeeper for a lot of sensitive information and was always amazed at how fast, widespread and accurately gossip spreads. Studies from the 60s (although I don’t know whether this is still relevant as that sounds like a lifetime ago) show that more than 75% of the details in gossip are correct.
Why People Love To Gossip
According to Frederick Koenig, a sociologist and author of Rumor in the Marketplace: The Social Psychology of Commercial Hearsay, people listen to and pass on a rumor because it satisfies an inner need. This is why understanding the nature of the people involved is key. According to Koenig, different people have different needs that lead to their reasons behind passing along gossip.
- … can circulate because the topic is interesting or a source of diversion.
- … can pull together events and fill in the gaps to make sense and provide explanations for what is going on.
- … can validate and support a point of view.
- …can reconcile one’s psychological state with what one sees as actually going on. (Studies show people who have high anxiety frequently participate more in the rumor process and groups in stressful situations have more rumor activity.)
- … are a means of getting attention.
- … are ways of manipulating situations. The idea of individuals or groups deliberately starting a rumor to serve selfish ends is frequently suggested.
The Grapevine Is On 24/7
It is the informal communication highway and it works 24/7; in company buses, cafeterias, hallways, meeting rooms, bathrooms and water coolers. But don’t think it stops when the office closes down. Nowadays, more often than not the grapevine really comes to life through Facebook, Twitter, or any other social network platform. It never stops and most of the time it is much faster and more direct than the organized formal communication methods that companies rely on. (You won’t see anything scandalous written in an office memo, but what employees communicate from desk to desk would shock you.)
Benefits of Gossip
Of course gossip and the infamous grapevine that carries the gossip can have both positive and negative consequences for the organization. The negative is that the grapevine can carry all kinds of misinformation and create insecurity in individuals. There are, however, also a number of benefits. The simple fact that people are talking about the organization shows that they are interested in what is going on with the company (as a leader you should get worried if employees stop discussing the company as it shows that they are not engaged). The benefit is that gossiping allows employees to express their feelings (both positive and negative) rather than keeping it bottled up.
How to Manage the Downside of Gossip
Of course, when the going gets tough and difficult messages have to be communicated (for example: downsizing, re-locations, or organizational changes) the grapevine works at its best and the consequences are most likely the most detrimental. In these cases as a leader you have two options (1) share as much as possible as soon as possible, even if not everything is clear and decided or (2) share information once when everything is decided and clear. The advantage of the “ASAP approach’ is that you let people in on what is happening with the downside being that things can change over time and you might be increasing their insecurities (as not everything is clear). Telling people when everything is clear is of course the flip side of the same coin. Although here, the biggest negative is that you are unable to formally influence the grapevine as you have not communicated anything and have left it up to others to exaggerate or downplay (as any piece of gossip can turn). Both approaches have their time and place.
How To Manage The Grapevine
First and foremost is accepting that the grapevine is always on and can’t be stopped. You can try to ‘kill’ it in one situation, but I bet you it pops its head into another soon. The best way to manage the grapevine is to:
- Make sure you inform employees as quickly and fully as possible of what is going on in the company. Use social media and the formal communication channels available to you. Remember the key mantra in communicating to employees is: Communicate, then communicate more and if you think that you have communicated enough, double your efforts.
- Listen to the rumors and decide what are facts and what is biases. If, as a leader, you are in tune with the grapevine you get a feel of what is really happening in the company and you can use this as influence.
- Act fast. If rumors are wildly incorrect then make sure you come out ASAP to set the record straight by proactively communicating to all employees. Otherwise, distorted half-truths will make the rounds — so nip these destructive rumors in the bud.
Learn to love the grapevine. Don’t get jumpy if ‘secret’ information is out there. Simply accept and try to use it to your benefit.
– Paul Keijzer