The “grapevine” is fast and effective at spreading messages throughout an organization. These messages are not always accurate, nor do they necessarily convey news that people want to broadcast. However, the grapevine can play a vital role within organizations and people at all levels can use it in positive, as well as negative, ways.
Informal communication always occurs in organizations. People chat in the tea rooms, in the corridors even in the bathroom. Some people congregate outside for a smoke, others socialise over lunch, have a drink after work or play golf. Networks and alliances are formed and information is shared.
The organization chart does not dictate who talks to whom. Bad news travels fast and it is not uncommon for employees to have heard it well in advance of delivery through formal channels. Good news or neutral information can be distorted or misinterpreted as it is passed on. This is why false rumours, half-truths, omissions or amplifications of messages give the grapevine such a bad name.
Informal communication can override organisational statements such as: “people are our greatest asset”. Employees get a version of the vision, values and priorities that may be different from that stated in the Annual Report.
Managing informal communication means building relationships and networks that enhance the two-way flow of information. Mentoring can be a critical factor in establishing such networks. Mentoring programs allow people who embody the values and principles of the organization to develop relationships with others. Mentors can convey positive messages to staff and get valuable feedback. A mentor can also act as a circuit breaker for the negative aspects of the grapevine by encouraging critical thinking and a measured response to rumours. A mentoring program sends the message that the organization values its people and cares about their development, in away that all the glossy print in the world could not achieve.
Mentoring allows people to build relationships based on trust and rapport. People, those mentored as well as mentors, provide a window on the organization that might not be available otherwise. Attitude and morale can improve for both parties. Additional perspective and more accurate information can be brought to career planning and decision-making.
Actively managing the informal communication in an organization raises ethical issues. The grapevine can be manipulated. Information can be planted with specific intent. However, if a mentoring program enhances the critical thinking and problem-solving skills of the participants they become more sophisticated consumers of information. Mentoring programs also usually build networks as well as one-to-one relationships. Such networks provide multiple points of reference for an individual, increasing the veracity of information used and acted on. Mentoring programs therefore make an important contribution to the lives of individual participants and the effectiveness of the organization.
Ann Rolfe is the founder of Mentoring Works. She has over twenty-five years experience in learning and development and sixteen years specializing in mentoring.
Ann Rolfe has been instrumental is setting up mentoring programs and training people in fields as diverse as health, construction, energy, communications, law and government. She has spoken at national and international conferences in Australia, Singapore and USA.