Analysis: Rumours, gossip and the "he said/she said" grapevine are an inevitable part of almost all organisations

The 'grapevine' is the informal communication network found within organisations and it's an unofficial and personal communication channel. The term can be traced back to the US civil war in the 1860s when the telegraph wires strung through the trees and resembled grapevines. Nowadays, a grapevine basically means deriving information from places other than the official source.

Rumours, gossip and "he said/she said" are some of the other terms used to describe grapevine communication. Researchers agree that the grapevine is an inevitable part of almost all organisations and some studies have found that 70% of all organisational communication occurs at the grapevine level.

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But gossip as a phenomenon has never been able to garner much respect. The traditional view has regarded gossip as bad, unprofessional, petty and rooted in the malicious desire to harm others by damaging their reputation. However, there is no denying the fact that humans have engaged in gossip despite it being labelled as bad since times immemorial.

The perception about gossip always being awful and damaging is now being challenged by many researchers. Robin Dunbar holds that gossip is an important form of social communication that serves to bond people together. He has even proposed that gossip replaces grooming as a way for people to maintain social relationships.

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister says gossip may be particularly hard to resist because of the evolutionary benefits that came with learning about perilous things, as opposed to positive or otherwise non-threatening ones. This probably explains why employees are more interested to know and speculate about negative rather than positive things happening around them. For example, team members are more interested to know and gossip about why Lucy was pulled from a particular project than why Brien was asked to represent the team in a prestigious symposium.

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Some employees engage in gossip because they see it as a platform to learn from the misadventures of other people. Others engage in it probably because of a sadistic personality which takes pleasure from the fact that someone else rather than themselves is having a miserable time.

Grapevine channels carry information quickly, particularly when an employee gets to know a secret about the personal life of his/her manager. Let's say, for example, s/he learns that their line manager is getting a divorce. He/she becomes curious and gives the details then to his/her close friend, who in turn passes it to others. Thus, it spreads hastily and soon the entire office knows that the line manager is getting divorced.

This type of gossip is still acceptable as there is some truth attached to it. But this gossip becomes a rumour when a group of enthusiastic gossipers over a cup of coffee discuss the plausible reasons of this divorce and a completely unsupported theory emerges that the divorce is happening because this manager is having an affair. This is when gossip crosses the line from a garden variety conversation to something which could be potentially very harmful.

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Studies show that most information transmitted in organisations by the grapevine is accurate 75 to 90% of time. But even if the grapevine is accurate as much as 90% of the time, it is the 10% or more that is inaccurate that can cause organisations problems.

So should management do anything to mitigate this 10%? One study found that 92.4% of companies surveyed had no policy to deal with the grapevine, and managers and organisations usually didn't take an active role in managing or controlling informal communication networks. Studies indicate that a grapevine can enhance corporate culture and increases allegiance to corporate goals. As a result, it would be counterproductive to try and destroy the system, or for the grapevine to be controlled by management.

On the other hand, there are many other experts who recommend that organisations should adopt a proactive policy toward managing the grapevine in order to decrease many problems, which may result from inaccurate information. Before an organisation contemplates making policies and procedures against gossiping at work, it might be a good idea to brainstorm why and when do employees engage and rely on grapevine communication.

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Studies indicate that employees rely on the grapevine when they feel insecure, vulnerable, are under stress, when there is pending change and when employees feel communication from management is limited. Another strong argument for not having a policy and procedures against gossip could be that researchers generally agree that the grapevine often functions in a beneficial manner.

The grapevine can help improve organisational efficiency in a number of ways. For example, grapevine information can reduce anxiety among employees and help make sense of limited information. It also can help identify pending problems, function as an early warning signal for organisational change and is a vehicle for creating a common organisational culture. In addition, the grapevine fulfils a social function: informal communication and socialisation can help make work groups develop cohesion and provide vital opportunities for human contact.

Gossip can help improve organisational efficiency in a number of ways

Almost all employees are working under tremendous stress and uncertainty these days. This makes it desirable that employees engaging in gossip are careful about not spreading any misinformation which can be detrimental to the motivation of co-workers and for the image of the organisation as a whole.

Never has there been a greater need for benign gossip then now. It could be acceptable to feel the urge of talking behind the back about our bosses and other colleagues’ personal lives, but it is highly unacceptable to engage in a gossip which is rooted in the malicious desire to harm others by damaging their reputation. It is our responsibility to gossip sensibly.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ