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What Leaders Dont Know About The Rumor Mill

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Dr Carol Kinsey Goman - Expert Author

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You may think that communication takes place in speeches and newsletters. If so, you're missing out on the most powerful communication channel in your organization -- the rumor mill.

The executive assistant was listening to her CEO complain about how hard it was to get a strategic message to everybody. “Actually,” replied the assistant, “I could get a message to the entire company in no time at all by spreading a rumor through the grapevine.”

She knew something about communication that her boss didn’t.

Research suggests that up to 70% of all organization communication comes through the grapevine, yet many senior leaders are unaware that it exists or how it operates. One study, in fact, found that while 92% of lower-level managers knew the grapevine was active, only 70% of upper-level managers knew about it. In the same study, 88% of supervisors said they understood that the absence of formal communication increased activity through informal channels - but only 54% of executives understood this correlation.

The grapevine – Webster’s “informal person-to-person means of circulating information or gossip” – is the informal and unsanctioned communication network found in every organization. From my interviews with over 1100 employees in a wide variety of companies and industries, I learned a lot about the power of the grapevine.

I learned, for example, that if there were conflicting messages -- one delivered during a speech from the company leader and another spread through the grapevine -- more people (47%) would believe the grapevine, and only 42% would believe senior leadership. (The remaining 11% were undecided.)

I found that putting something in writing tended to give it more validity. When I asked if people were more likely to believe an official newsletter (online or print) or the rumor mill, the majority of my respondents (51%) favored the newsletter, with only 40% placing more faith in the grapevine.

I learned that direct supervisors were the most trusted sources of information. Due to the more personal relationship that exists between employee and supervisor, it wasn’t surprising that 74% said they would believe their boss. Still, many stipulated that it would depend on the quality of that relationship. “I'd totally believe my current supervisor,” said one individual. “My old supervisor, never.”

I discovered there were some conditions when you should expect the rumor mill to kick into high gear:

1. When there is a lack of formal communication.

2. When the situation is ambiguous or uncertain (as in times of major change).

3. When there is no sanctioned channel for venting.

4. When there is a culture of silos and internal competition.

5. When there is a heavy-handed attempt by management to kill the grapevine.

6. When the body language of the communicator (gestures, facial expressions, vocal tone) undermine his/her spoken message.

People gave high marks to rumor mill accuracy (57%), but what tends to happen most often in the workplace is that people believe a “blend” of what they hear, rather than making a clear choice between more formal communication and the grapevine. One individual reinforced this idea by noting, “Both channels have elements of truth that need to be synthesized.”

Companies are a combination of formal hierarchy and informal networks, but most communication strategies take into account only the formal organization. (Cascade communication is a classic example of “rolling out” a message from top to bottom of the organization chart.)

We will always need authentic speeches from senior leaders, well-written and well-researched articles in newsletters, and first-line supervisors who are first-rate communicators. It's just that none of these strategies was created to deal with the complex web of social interactions and informal networks that grace today's organizations.

Influencing the grapevine begins with understanding its power. I like the way this survey respondent summed it up: “Formal communication focuses on messages the company wants to deliver, with a scope management feels is appropriate, and at a time management feels is right. The reason the grapevine plays such an important role is that it delivers the information employees care about, provides the details employees want to know, and is delivered at the time employees are interested.”

Gossip moves from groups that are split into factions (like separate departments and divisions) through people who gravitate into an intermediate position, making connections between the factions. These intermediaries control the gossip flow and hold a lot of power. If you want to have an impact on the grapevine, you’ll need to identify the most influential people who operate within it. Then, find out about their attitudes toward the company, inform them in advance, train them to be even more skillful communicators, solicit their opinions, and ask their advice.

There is no doubt as to which communication vehicle is the quickest -- especially now that social media as put the grapevine on steroids. You can’t outrun rumor mill and you can’t kill it. The challenge is to understand how the grapevine works within your organization - and how you can most effectively influence it.


About the Author

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.is an international Keynote speaker on collaborative leadership and the impact of body language in the workplace. Communications coach to executives to improve their leadership presence and effectiveness.
Leadership blogger for Forbes and author of "The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help - or Hurt - How You Lead.”

Carol@CarolKinseyGoman.com
Office: 510-526-1727
Berkeley, California
www.CarolKinseyGoman.com

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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2013-12-18 09:13:36 in Employee Articles

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