The communications grapevine - communications
Long, long ago John Donne suggested that "No man is an
island, entire of itself", tapping a theme of co-operation and mutual interdependence that echoes down the centuries.
While the heroic individual can sometimes manage great feats, most of mankind's more significant achievements have been the result of collaborative
activity. From the pyramids to the moon landing, the heavy lifting gets done better and faster when teams share the load.
Even that remarkable individual Isaac Newton was careful to make sure that the role of his predecessors was fully acknowledged, writing
that "if I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants" - a tribute to the power of education and learning, and to the importance of a community of fellow specialists.
In the modern era, organisations large and small are responsible for so much of what we humans manage.
For all of those organisations, alongside the central skills of communicating clearly to customers, regulators and the broader public, there
are crucial management tasks of getting the staff to know just what they are expected to do, making sure they have the skills, equipment
and and motivation needed, and then ensuring that they perform as required.
Engineering signals or negotiating understanding ?
Ideas about how to manage and how to communicate can be tightly interwoven.
One reasonably well known film director was very pleased to achieve notoriety with his dictum "a team effort is a lot of people doing
what I say". Top-down, one-way messages can be speedy and efficient - and sometimes essential in a crisis. But this type of
communication is more prone to error or misunderstanding, and does not help with peer-to-peer support, nor with the gathering and
reporting of information from an organisation's "front lines" of customer contact, production, buying, service and sales through to the senior managers responsible for strategy.
Accordingly, many organisations take a more nuanced approach, realising that an
"engineering" model of communications (where a message is reliably encoded, transmitted and received complete with feedback and error correction procedures) is helpful but incomplete.
This misses much of the subtlety of human interaction, which is perhaps more adequately understood through an appreciation of how both "sender" and "receiver" construct an
understanding of their worlds, and of how they interpret the actions and signals they receive from others, including formal communications.
Where "sender" and "receiver" worlds are very different - which in multicultural, diverse,
unequal modern societies, can often be the case - then great care is needed to construct communications which are adequately acceptable and credible both to the originator and to the receiver.
Formal and informal structures
Often, organisations deliver top-down communications via speeches, sound-bites, memos, e-mails, web sites, notice boards, videos, manuals and procedures to what is imagined or hoped to be a receptive workforce.
At the better end, local line managers can be responsible for "cascading" - interpreting and gaining
acceptance for messages from the top - to those they supervise. By this means, it is imagined that a tightly controlled central "line" can be devised, delivered and accepted.
Yet to the staff, this leaves a vacuum. Often people are well aware of much of the context surrounding the organisation that they work for. The management "line", unless it acknowledges, explains and shows
a route forward from what is seen as the reality of the current situation, may be disregarded as spin.
In these circumstances, gossip and rumour can flourish. The friendships, informal relationships, peer
support and day-to-day channels for improvisation which so helpfully make up an organisation's informal structure, can come to take too prominent a role.
If "nature abhors a vacuum", then a shortage of reliable information on things like adaptations to changing
market conditions, job losses, restructuring, new products, investment plans, alliances and mergers, or any other aspect of the business environment might well represent that vacuum for your organisation.
People care, they will speculate, and in the absence of good information, such speculation, rumour and bad information will circulate.
It is important to keep communications channels open, to keep the messages sent through those channels credible, and to deal with the issues that concern people in all parts of the organisation.
What is grapevine communication ?
Grapevine communication is a term for the information, gossip, rumour and speculation that flows through the set of informal structures that sustain organisations.
Very often, messages received in this way will have high credibility. This is information
swapped by people who may, like mushrooms, be used to being kept in the dark and regularly dosed with fertiliser, but the relatively trusted status of information from friends
and colleagues is evident. People evaluate information received based partly on who is supplying it and their previous honesty or reliability.
Working with the grapevine - delivering enough satisfactory, reliable information to the
formal and informal communications structures to forestall rumour and meet staff information needs - is central to effective corporate
communications. "Scaring them into submission" with heavy-handed restatements of the company line in defiance of inconvenient realities
might gain you token deference in public, but it will do nothing at all for staff motivation, performance or the bottom line.
Water cooler moments
It's far from uncommon for better organisations to be aware of the importance of these informal communications networks, and to seek to encourage them.
One large research centre I covered, with something more than 3,000 scientists
arranged in a cluster of buildings, had taken this into account even from the stage of the design of the buildings.
Labs were housed along both sides of relatively short, central corridors. Where corridors converged, these corners were widened and designed as "nodes" -
meeting spaces, with seating and coffee facilities - so that people working in those areas would have plenty of opportunity for regular, informal contact.
The architects and the senior scientists had together planned for this collection of deliberate, informal spaces The history of research discoveries had shown how
important these seemingly serendipitous, informal contacts can be in facilitating those ground-breaking, eureka moments so important to scientific progress.
Another example is a global multinational which, not untypically, links its graduate recruitment with its continuing management development programme.
Care and attention in selecting recruits and bringing them together is followed by a series of rotations
or post changes. The company's thinking is that those that they can hold on to will have good connections right across their relevant business areas - fast access to relevant expertise, outside of
formal organisational structures.
I was privileged to witness this producing brilliant dividends in the speedy, efficient development of network performance analysis and monitoring tools, as those carefully nurtured informal structures
enabled the team in charge to find and pull in the specialist support it needed faster and more effectively than had seemed possible to those in charge.
The natural human tendency to connect, to form friendship groups and communities, is perhaps part of the reason for the spectacular
successes of, first, Friends Reunited and then more recently Bebo, Myspace Facebook and to some extent Linkedin.
This is technology working with the grain of the things many of us want to do. While the platforms and forums will no doubt continue to
change, the underlying social impulses probably will not. These patterns of connectedness of course form the pathways for informal communications to flourish. The office grapevine is likely to grow stronger.
Few organisations (in free societies) are likely to succeed in controlling or policing these technologies, and attempts to do so must pay
careful attention to staff morale. Organisations will have to learn how to make use of, to work with these trends and tools.
Now more than ever, messages prepared for one audience will reach many other audiences. Old style, divide and deceive
communications tactics are already struggling in the face of better, faster mass media and these enhanced networking and communications technologies. These trends are likely to strengthen.
Saying one thing to one audience and something contradictory to another is increasingly coming back to haunt communicators. Any short
-term advantage (and this deceptive style has always offered quick, sweet gratification) will be far outweighed by the longer-term damage to reputation, brand, integrity.
Audiences learn ; one keenly sought lesson is who can be trusted. So organisations really have to do what they should always have done:
tell the truth. Find a way to prepare your message, so that is reliable, consistent and credible.
For many audiences, a headline or slogan will be enough. For others, a little more detail will be necessary to bring the message home -
solid but still light. And when things matter most, you'll need a fully worked out, logically consistent set of messages, with as much
relevant evidence as can be pieced together; material you could take to a select committee, regulator or court if challenged. If your message fails the "bad science" test, your audiences will gradually find out, and your reputation, credibility and influence will leak away.
Command and control or engage and persuade?
Sadly perhaps, the limitations of "shock and awe" as an alternative to winning hearts and minds as a strategic approach have been all too apparent in recent times. And if power tends to corrupt, then perhaps we need to look to the founding fathers for inspiration, and ensure
a proper regard for all individuals along with a careful separation of powers.
Even within much of the British armed forces, sometimes wrongly regarded as examples of dictatorial control, the ideas of mindless
obedience and one-way communication belong deep in the past, if they ever truly held sway.
Working with the military, I have been struck by how well their "chain of command"
communications system sometimes works, with messages flowing in both directions, appropriate respect from senior officers for the input and skills of their subordinates,
and respect by those subordinates for the decisions their senior officers take. And, when needed, swift and effective action.
Within all organisations, it takes a balance between control and supervision on the one hand and motivation and encouragement on the other to ensure that staff buy in
to what's expected of them, and don't fall prey to other temptations.
Communications, day by day as well as in the course of staff development and training, are of course central to achieving that balance.
What's in a name?
All of which lies somewhere behind the way I happened on my trading name, when a production manager putting together another
sizeable studio and location shoot for me felt that she needed something more official-sounding than "working for freelance producer Michael Smith" for her bookings.
That, of course, and because according to Noel Coward, "it's amazing how potent cheap music can be". Thanks to Marvin Gaye.
My aim here is to deliver reliable, credible, interesting corporate communications, whether to staff, to customers, or to wider publics. To deliver material that can work with the grapevine, not against it.
The kind of communications that have a real chance to "go viral" - interesting, about something, pithily expressed, and reliable. If your
audiences will pay attention and give credit to your messages, then you have a chance to put across the points you want and need to make.
Contact Grapevine Communications for ideas and costings for your communications needs.
Of course there are many sources for this. Some useful starting points include
Aristotle's On rhetoric
Still fresh today. Is this the earliest surviving text showing sharp awareness of the need to
develop communications specifically to persuade and adapted to suit particular audiences?
Shakespeare's Othello source
Alongside the jealousy theme, this masterpiece brings out the dangerous power of rumour and
hearsay, if unchecked and untested. Truly an exploration of how informal communications channels can be exploited.
The Hawthorne effect - various authors
This famous series of studies of industrial activity and productivity from the early 20th century produced many rich insights - not least, the
realisation that formal "time and motion" methods and top-down control were not lastingly effective in improving performance. The
importance of the "experimental effects" seems fundamental .Was it the increased attention and fuller respect given to the experimental
subjects which produced the productivity gains? Certainly this research seems to demonstrate that the informal and social aspects of the
work environment were of far greater impact than the choice of time-and-motion method in improving group performance.
More from Gillespie, Richard, Manufacturing Knowledge: A history of the Hawthorne experiment
Irving Goffman's Asylums
This study of the closed world of a mental health institution is significant for the way it draws out and examines the realities of the informal
worlds of inmates and staff, and how these do or do not align with the official, formal processes. Seminal. case study
Professor Richard Titmuss' The Gift Relationship
This thorough examination of the social and economic values and meanings surrounding the ways that British and US health authorities
sought supplies of blood for their medical centres has, like Asylums, had far wider impact and significance than its subject might have
suggested. A clear evocation of social worlds where money is not an effective or efficient motivator, and an insight into ways of communicating need and touching on human altruism.
Eric Berne's Games People Play.
From the father of transactional analysis, if that's not too child-like a title! This accessible little book was a cornerstone in the
development of a new way of looking at human relationships and a new style of therapy, and brings unusual insights into how we behave.
Intriguing. Does your organisation treat its audiences adult to adult, or is it locked into a parent-to-adult conflict cycle ...?
Various, including Festinger, Sherif, Asch - Theory of Cognitive Dissonance
A tendency to conform to perceived group norms (often apparently without realising it) is predicted by cognitive dissonance theory, and
has been reported in a large and varied body of studies, including early works by Sherif. Of course, which groups the subject identifies
with can be a crucial factor; informal communications approaches might seek to align "the grapevine" with the organisation.
Robert Cialdini's Influence: Science and Practice
This easy to read study combines academic research with observations from everyday life to produce a fascinating essay on some
current dominant models for influencing people. Strictly "off topic" but full of relevant insight.
Professor Simon - satisficing, and the less than perfectly rational manager or worker
Very influential extension of economic theory beyond its starting constraints of "perfect rationality". Built on reports of extended
observations of people at work, which showed that managers (and workers) often do not behave as classical microeconomic theory
would suggest, Simon posits limits to the rationality of humans even in a work setting, and explores likely consequences for the behaviour of people in organisations and for economic theory.
Bowles & Gintis A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution A look at human evolution taking account of observed
and observable cooperative behaviour.
And some recent search-related thoughts