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The company grapevine, the rumour mill, the bush telegraph – call it what you will – it's the bane of many a manager and supervisor in organizations across the country. Just about every manager I know shudders at the thought of unsubstantiated reports, unconfirmed stories, and unsupported speculations all taking on a life of their own as they pass from one person to the next.
Whether the scuttlebutt takes life in the cafeteria, around the water cooler, or at the loading dock, most leaders go out of their way to ignore it. But pretending that it doesn't exist is the worst thing you can do, because the company grapevine can be one of the most efficient forms of corporate communication.
Let's examine two undisputable facts about communication in workplaces. First, in the absence of reliable information, people fill the void by making things up. And second, no matter how hard you try, it is impossible to stop rumours from circulating.
Consider what happens repeatedly in organizations. A new initiative is under way, but the details are still being deciphered. With the best of intentions, management decides not to release any specifics until all the i's are dotted and the t's crossed. After all, there's no point in sharing incomplete information, they say. So until then, the matter is kept "confidential." Except that "confidential" isn't.
Employees know that something is afoot, and in the absence of any reliable data, they automatically assume the worst. Before you know it, the rumour mill kicks into high gear, and the worst imaginable scenarios are kicked around at the photocopier and in the lunchroom. And once the snowball begins to roll, it becomes increasingly difficult to stop it and reassure people. And this is exactly why so many leaders try to disassociate themselves from the company grapevine
But it doesn't need to be that way. The two undisputable facts about communication means that this seeming liability can actually be an asset. It is possible to make the company grapevine work for you, rather than against you. But it will require a shift in the way you think and act.
First, share what you know. Even if it's partial or preliminary information. Far better to have incomplete, but accurate information circulating than complete falsehoods. Preface the release of news by commenting that plans have not been finalized. The vast majority of employees understand that information is generally subject to change and will therefore be prepared to accept changes later. And for the few who don't – they aren't any further behind than they were previously.
Second, harness the power of the gossip machine by strategically feeding information to selected people in the company grapevine. You know that there are certain people in your department and organization who are skilled at circulating information through the network. Most leaders I know just view these employees with a degree of annoyance, and occasionally even disdain. But instead of letting them frustrate you, why not deliberately share information with them and let them expedite the transmission of news in your company? Not only will you get more accurate information circulating through the system, but the process will be more efficient.
Remember that when there is a lack of information, human nature leads people to assume the worst, so it's in everybody's best interest to give them facts to work with. You're never going to get rid of the grapevine, so embrace it and use it to the best advantage.
Merge Gupta-Sunderji (@mergespeaks) is a speaker and author who turns managers into leaders, drawing upon her over 17 years of firsthand experience as a leader in corporate Canada. Reach her or join the conversations on her blog at www.TurningManagersIntoLeaders.com.