Taming the Grapevine in Three Steps

As I walked into a corporate cafeteria one day several years ago, I immediately felt that the weather inside was the same as outside: cold and gloomy. I grabbed my lunch and located a table of my pals. Before I even sat down, my friend Joe announced, “Kathy’s leaving!” I put down my tray. “We’ve been hearing that for a while now.” “Oh it’s a done deal,” piped in Cindy. “Kathy thinks big changes are coming and she doesn’t want to live through another shake-up. I don’t know if I have the heart or the stomach to go though another re-org either.” Harry looked serious. “I heard the entire sales force is being cut. Again. But this time it’s gonna be a real blood bath.” I sighed. “Well, there’s an All-Hands Meeting tomorrow. I guess we’ll find out then.” That brought a big laugh. 

The next day we heard from our senior leaders and not surprisingly, there wasn’t a word about Kathy or the sales team. Just a number of vague references to the company having to “change to meet increasing challenges in the external environment.” Oh, and of course, the need to focus, make our numbers, and get the job done.

Here’s the thing. Actually 3 things. 

FIRST, in the absence of communication, employees will make up their own stories and theories. And they’ll pass them on…quickly and relentlessly. Even when there is a nugget of truth about an upcoming change, stories without facts become rumors. They morph and gain speed and voices and volume until they come roaring back to bite everyone—management, staff, customers and shareholders alike. Not only does an activated Grapevine lead to wasted time, energy and churn, but it also has to be “undone” and that takes even more resources and energy. Definitely not the path to productivity.

SECOND, not all communications are created equal. Even in large corporations, where there are communication resources aplenty, communication plans often aren’t nimble enough to get out ahead of the rumor mill. Even if the message is sent out in a timely fashion, it’s often completely devoid of any real information—just the same jargon everyone’s heard before. Employees tune in and then—very quickly—they tune out.

THIRD, a good plan doesn’t have to be complicated. The question is, who needs to know, what do they need to know and when. A great start is to gather all the MIS-information from as many sources as possible to get a feel for what you’re up against. Then build a “message map” with this simple framework: What do employees need to know (facts, figures, what, when)…What do they need to do as a result (actions, next steps, behavior change)…Why do they need to care (why it matters and why they should commit to making the change a successful one). Once the team agrees on the Map, give it a test run with a small group to see what kinds of tweaks are needed. Finally, decide on the kinds of channels you’ll use to push it out—town halls, small team meetings, emails, Intranet, IM, etc.  

Is it time to tame your company’s grapevine? Don’t just spend your time and energy worrying about it—take action, and quickly. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself chasing the rumor mill in a race that you can’t win.