How many times have you heard the sentiment - or expressed it yourself: "If real information moved through this company as fast as rumors do, we'd be much better off"? Welcome to the grapevine. You can't affect what people do unless you influence what they hear. And the most powerful communication channel is the unofficial channel.
According to career coach Marilyn Moats Kennedy, working the grapevine starts with identifying the people who help it grow. But forget the org chart; a company's "information leaders" can't be identified by rank or position. Look instead for the people she calls "the querulous, the garrulous, and the congenitally unlovable - the receptionist who has been there for 30 years, the people in accounting or data processing. Those are the information leaders."
Kennedy notes one limitation of the grapevine. Young people, she argues, just don't gossip about office goings-on the way their senior colleagues do: "Older workers are insatiable users of the grapevine, but younger workers often don't participate. To them, being part of the grapevine makes you a wimp - not an independent thinker. Most young people don't expect to be with a company for more than three years, so they're not as involved in the rumor mill. They don't see the value of gossip unless it relates specifically to them."
There's more to working the grapevine than playing smart politics. Sharing information with people who are likely to share it with others is the right thing to do, argues Allan Cohen of Babson College, whose latest book is Power Up: Transforming Organizations Through Shared Leadership (John Wiley & Sons, 1998). "You never want to hide what you're doing or create suspicion about your motives," he says. "If you try to get away with something by withholding information, it's likely to come back to haunt you."
Cohen has a rule for putting this principle into practice: Always be 15% more open than other people expect you to be. "Too much openness creates suspicion," he says. "Too little openness is not enough. And never lie. You don't have to reveal everything at once, but most people can smell a lie."
What about keeping things off the grapevine? That may be the ultimate challenge. "So much of what winds up on the grapevine is based on intuition, guesses, interpretations of body language," says Kennedy. "People are more interested in the fact that your door is closed than in what you're actually saying. That's why it's so hard to contain rumors."
Debra Dunn, 41, a general manager at Hewlett-Packard, faced just such a challenge. Her job requires her to get difficult things done all the time; she runs an HP division that incubates new product lines. Last year, she took charge of a team that was trying to bring the company into the high-speed cable-modem business. She quickly saw problems with HP's entry into that market. Indeed, she soon became convinced that the team would have to shut down. "It was a tough call, because it meant dislocating people," she says. "But it's not a decision that you can make incrementally."
Before making a final decision, Dunn gave her team one last chance to rescue the operation: "Instead of walking in and saying, 'The party's over,' I said, 'Here's reality as I see it. Help me see what I'm missing' - which ultimately wasn't much."
Dunn also understood that if word of the product line's shaky status began to circulate inside HP, her last-ditch test would be over before it began. So she went to the team's leaders - "I began communicating the issues, but I also impressed on the leaders that they could not talk to anyone else, period. I talked about the leaky-vessel phenomenon: 'If everyone walks out of this room and tells one person, then in very little time, lots of people will know - and that's not okay.'"
HP eventually pulled out of the high-end cable-modem business. Dunn was gratified - and a little surprised - by how few people knew about the decision beforehand. "We managed to keep everything quiet because the folks involved took seriously the importance of controlling the information," she says. "People don't do the wrong thing because they want to do the wrong thing. They do the wrong thing because they're not clear on what the right thing is."
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.