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Leadership for Life – The Grapevine
Every organization of any size has a grapevine. The grapevine is the informal communication medium via which information is passed along among workers and other stakeholders. A lot of hand-wringing has gone on about the destructive nature of rumors, gossip, whispering campaigns, etc. Even the recent suicide of a Missouri politician has been blamed on a whispering campaign, which turned out to be bogus.
Great leaders know that grapevines can be managed to help the organization build effective communication networks internally. “Management by walking around” is a great way for leaders to expose themselves to the grapevine, allowing them to either reinforce positive messages, or put the kibosh on destructive messages. The grapevine can also be used as a testing ground for potential changes in an organization. By strategically “leaking” information, leaders can get the sense of the organization with respect to proposed changes, and allow them to do the necessary tweaking of a plan to make it more acceptable to the organization as a whole.
If you’re going to make use of the organizational grapevine, you need to do it purposefully, and not allow things to run their course. Once a bit of information becomes a rumor, it can take on a life of its own, and pretty quickly, too. That’s why a leader has to take control as quickly as possible by personally confirming or denying the rumored information. By providing accurate information on whatever the issue is, the leader deflates the rumor and builds trust in him/herself and the organization.
Accurate information helps to eliminate the dire fantasies that often accompany rumors. Without clear communication, any vacuum will tend to get filled by something that looks or sounds like the truth, but may be vastly overblown. Leaders should use all the communication channels available in the organization – newsletters, bulletin boards, phone mail, intranets, etc. The more channels used, the more likely it is that accurate messages will be received by as many people as possible in the shortest time.
These days, internal rumors can become news in the public domain. The use of cell phones, blogs, and other internet tools, combined with a voracious 24 hour news cycle, can cause rumors to spiral out of control. If that happens, you need an authoritative spokesperson to set the record straight in the media. The ever-popular “no comment” can sink an organization when everybody in the world can be their own news anchor and publish leaked information that goes viral in minutes.
The grapevine is a fact of life, and cannot simply be denied or punished out of existence. Effective leaders will learn to manage the grapevine, not fight it.