How to deal with rumors on the grapevine
This article has been quoted in the New York Times
If managers and supervisors don’t attend to the communication needs of their staff, there is no vacuum of information. Instead, the informal avenue of rumors grows, frequently putting a destructive slant on organizational happenings when employees are uncertain. Some people say that up to 70% of the information employees receive is via the grapevine.
Information via the grapevine invariably moves much faster than through formal communication channels. This is its greatest attribute. Social media, text and Twitter messages have joined emails as channels of communication, enabling rumors to spread at lightning speed. Just ask Donald Trump…
Origin of ‘the grapevine’
The ‘grapevine’ is the informal communication network found in every organization. The term can be traced back to the US Civil War in the 1860s. Since battlefronts moved frequently, army telegraph wires were strung loosely from tree to tree across battlefields, somewhat like wires used to support grapevines. The wires were used to carry telegraph messages created in Morse code (the electronic alphabet, invented in 1844) because the telephone wasn’t invented until 1876. Since the lines often were strung hastily during battle, and messages were composed in a hurry, the resulting communication tended to be garbled and confusing. Soon, any rumor was said to have been heard ‘on the grapevine.’
Four types of grapevine rumors
- Wish fulfillment – identifying the wishes and hopes of employees.
- ‘Bogey rumors’ – exaggerating employees’ fears and concerns.
- ‘Wedge-drivers’ – aggressive, unfriendly and damaging. They split groups and dissolve allegiances.
- ‘Home-stretchers’ – anticipating final decisions or announcements. They tend to fill the gap during times of ambiguity.
Grapevine information mostly accurate
Research shows that grapevine information tends to be about 80% accurate. Since many rumors start from someone’s account of an actual event, there are strong elements of truth in a rumor. However, grapevine information often contains big errors as people put their own interpretation onto an event or information they have seen, and then it is passed on in a process of partial or selective recall. This is usually a case of confirmation bias – the tendency to interpret new information as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.
Why do people spread rumors? Humans are social animals – we need to talk to others. Chat about others helps to strengthen our existing relationships. Besides entertainment value, gossiping can raise people’s self esteem – we feel more important by getting information first and by the interest it creates.
It is rare to find people at different levels discussing rumors or gossiping with each other. When two people share a rumor or gossip it has the effect of putting them on a relatively equal footing.
The grapevine can play an important part in the ‘management by walking around’ approach. When managers move around the office without a particular objective, they can pick up relevant rumors. This information would not have become available if the manager had stayed in their office all day.
Managers can sometimes purposely send messages through the grapevine to test the likely reaction to a possible management decision. This can allow feedback to take place and adjustments made before final decisions are made. Thus the grapevine can contribute to a more inclusive workplace.
Most rumors are about change
Most rumors are concerned with common organizational changes such as possible mergers and acquisitions, new aspects of mergers and acquisition processes that are already under way, changes in staffing, retrenchment plans and restructurings. Research conducted with 74 experienced PR professionals in corporate positions and consultancies, suggested that about a third of rumors related to personnel changes such as a senior executive leaving to join the opposition, about staff changes due to a shake-up in management and about changes caused by a merger or acquisition.
A further third of rumors were about job satisfaction and security. Job satisfaction rumors comprised hearsay about unhappy employees, dissatisfaction with management and transfer of duties. Job security rumors were about lay-offs caused by downsizing, restructuring, plant closing etc. The balance comprised speculation and gossip on a variety of topics.
Communicators can expect to encounter harmful rumors on the organizational grapevine quite often – about once a week on average, according to research. Although not always harmful, rumors can reduce employee productivity, tarnish personal reputations and interfere with organizational communication. Rumors obviously abound during restructuring and retrenchment processes – when employees are nervous about their jobs they waste time talking about the rumors and their work rate falls. External rumors are known to have hit sales, damaged corporate reputations and caused share prices to fall.
Messaging to prevent and reduce rumors
Plans can be activated to prevent and reduce rumors, although rumors are relatively difficult to grapple with. An early warning system is a good way to reduce harmful rumors that are already circulating: staff in various locations can be informally appointed to monitor and report on early indications of rumors.
Preventative measures should include keeping staff regularly, fully and honestly informed of planned changes through a range of tailored formal and informal communication avenues such as emails and face-to-face meetings at various levels. Sometimes external stakeholders also need to receive timely messages to prevent a harmful rumor from spreading outside the organization.
Prepare messages in advance
Communication pros could prepare messages on the issues for management and supervisors to communicate in response. The messages should be tailored to specific audiences and need to be couched in the everyday language of the workplace, not in ‘management-speak’. In addition, a rumor ‘hotline’ – an internal telephone service or email address – could be set up to receive questions from employees about rumors in circulation. Text messages and broadcast emails to employees could be put in place.
False rumors should be refuted by an authoritative source. For instance, the chief financial officer should deal with a rumor about cash flow, and the human resources manager should deal with a rumor about pay changes. Sometimes a respected external source is best placed to authoritatively refute a rumor. The refutations should be clear, strong, consistent and truthful. No response or a ‘no comment’ response only add to further damaging speculation, so avoid this as much as possible.
Use several channels to respond
The important thing is to maintain a good communication flow using several channels to convey the same message. It is helpful even to say that information is incomplete or discussions are in progress, and staff will be informed as soon as there is progress information available. It is futile to wait until everything is in place before issuing a statement because staff quickly notice unusual happenings and they know when unusual requests for information are received from head office. They will speculate about it – usually with some paranoia.
US research showed that a reasonably effective approach to minimizing rumors is to provide structuring to uncertainty. For instance, by explaining the procedures by which planned changes will be decided, the employer gives employees the comfort of knowing the broad guidelines that will be used. Similarly, telling them when an official announcement will be made at least provides them with some structure or stability of intent, even if the content of the announcement is not known to them.
Management should avoid playing word games with the truth or parts of the truth in order to minimize bad news. Their credibility will suffer massively if they try this – because the truth will inevitably emerge at some stage. During the course of research for their book, Why should anyone be led by you?, on creating the authentic organization, Professors Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones “saw over and over that the most admired organizations don’t do ‘spin.'” They say the old practice of ‘covering up’ no longer works. “Spin backfires.” The breadth and depth of information available today has created a more knowledgeable public, less easily swayed by cover ups and misinformation, except in the case of confirmation bias, mentioned above.
Social media has transformed the speed and spread of rumors
The advent of social media has transformed the speed and nature of rumors. As humorist Douglas Adams (1952-2001), author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy said, “Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.” Rumors spread extremely fast in social networks. The news, especially bad news, in a rumor can spread to a broad audience very quickly. More on this in another article.
Respond as soon as possible
The appropriate manager should confirm true rumors or true parts of rumors to staff as soon as possible. Otherwise the rumor will grow exponentially and very fast.
Another option, requiring professional judgment on the part of management and communicators, is merely to ignore the rumor and allow it to be overtaken by events.
Experience in the workplace showed that a punitive approach doesn’t work, ie to search for and/or seek to punish people who started or spread the rumor.