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GRAPEVINES: STOPPING OFFICE GOSSIP
Practical ways to minimize the damage.
by Kate (July, 2003)
(Note: "Kate" is a mid-level manager of a craft
Do you have a green thumb or a brown one? Do your plants
thrive or wilt? In most cases people with brown thumbs hang their
heads in shame when conversations revolve around the latest triumphs
of the garden. There is a time, however, when the brown thumbs can
hold their heads high, proud of their inability to keep something
alive. That is when they resist the urge to participate in the
survival or growth of the company grapevine.
This urge to be included is very hard to ignore. In an office
environment, many people value themselves based upon the information
that is given to them, more than on the quality of the job they do.
Unfortunately, the value is not realized until the information has
been passed on to others. After all, unless someone knows the extent
of the confidential information given to you, how can they put a
value on you?
Do you remember when adults would have us kids play the game of
Telephone? It was always interesting to see how a simple question,
"Do turtles have necks?" whispered from one child to the
next, could evolve into "I saw two turtles necking under a
There are many explanations for this transformation. Only certain
words were heard; the message was misinterpreted; or the softly
spoken message wasn't heard clearly. Another explanation: the
information was deliberately embellished or exaggerated.
Is it any wonder that an off-the-cuff comment about a slow month in
shipping can end up with employees updating their resumes because
the company is days from filing bankruptcy?
How can employers put a stop to the grapevine? The simple truth is
that one person cannot stop it. Memos, meetings, and emails that
direct staff members to kill grapevines instead only act like
fertilizer, increasing the size and negative effects of the vine.
There are some steps that can be taken but they will only work over
a period of time and with constant reinforcement.
1. The most important step in stopping the grapevine
misinformation is effective communication. This is not restricted to
your telling, but also to your listening. As a manager or
supervisor, you need to pass on complete information and at the same
time, encourage your staff to come directly to you with any
questions or concerns. When they do talk with you, listen to what
they have to say and do your best to thoroughly answer any questions
without divulging anything that is not for public knowledge.
2. Be aware of who is within earshot when you're talking with
others. Don't hesitate to pause your conversation and move it to a
more private area. Remember that others may only be hearing select
phrases or words and will be tempted to pass this information on
after filling in the blanks themselves.
3. Don't be afraid to question the information given to you
in a "Did you hear what so and so said?" format. Recently
I've begun asking these people if they were told this information
directly by the person in question, and if the information does not
involve their area within the company, why they are passing on
information that has nothing to do with them or their job?
Needless to say, these people have walked away in a huff and have
added my comments to the grapevine gossip. Though the grapevine
still makes a presence in my office, it is with much less frequency
4. Finally, if you have been given confidential information,
someone has determined that you need to know it and can be trusted
with it. Do you really want to jeopardize that trust? As hard as it
may be to keep the information to yourself, remember to ask yourself
if the sharing of that information is more beneficial to your
overall career than keeping it quiet. When a co-worker knows you
have a juicy tidbit, give them evasive answers to their prodding
questions. If tactful evasion doesn't work, firmly let those
inquiring minds know that you're not in a position to share the
information. Then don't share it.
The reality of the business world is that no matter how hard we try
to avoid them, grapevines are one of the most active and detrimental
aspects of a company. They often contain misinformation, and always
succeed in creating tension, low morale, and reduced productivity.
As one frustrated manager was overheard saying, "If products
moved through our system as quickly as (mis)information moves
through our grapevine, we'd all be retired millionaires right
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