Social & Workplace Influence–When the Grapevine is Good (Part I)

Call it whatever you like, the grapevine, water cooler, gossip, or the rumor mill.  Conversations among co-workers happen.  As human beings, we are social creatures who crave community, engagement, and interaction.  Whether it’s talking shop about the boss, layoff rumors after a less than satisfying quarterly earnings report, or gossip about Susie in Accounting and her supposed office extra-curriculars, conversations among co-workers are a guarantee. Management has battled with gossip and the grapevine since the beginning of time.

Supervisors are quick to lay blame to wildfire rumors, half truths, and innuendos at the office as being detrimental to workplace productivity and under-mining management authority.  However, a recent study by two doctoral candidates at the University of Kentucky sheds some light on the positive power of gossip in the workplace (Harvard Business Review 9/2010).

Some Points to Ponder

  • Gossip improves an employee’s social understanding of their environment. This concept is the basis of cultural anthropology and the concept of micro-cultures.  Workplace cultures and understanding these norms are no different.

 

  • Gossip is natural. According to a recent study by the University of Kentucky, 96% of employees admit to engaging in gossip at work.
  • It’s not all negative. Seventy-two percent of gossip was evenly blended both positive.  Only 7% of gossip was largely negative.
  • Negative gossip is a symptom of a larger organizational problem. Just like a fever or runny nose alerting a person to an infection, negative gossip is no different.
  • Perception is Reality. Prior to the written word, the grapevine was a form of historical storytelling. Sometimes the spoken word is more reliable than the written word in the workplace.  Visit any break room or smoking section as a covert HR operation, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

Just like social media is about engagement and influence outside of a brand’s scope of control, the workplace grapevine to a manager is no different.  Gossip just like social media is an exchange of information between two or more people typically about a third, absent party.  However, managers view this lack of control and democratic environment as a threat instead of a tool or channel in which to diagnose or influence a situation or scenario.

The Solution

Just as in social media, there is no silver bullet to managing gossip in the workplace or via the internet.  One size does not fit all.

Some Thoughts to Ponder

  • Conversations require at least TWO people. Managers must be talking to their teams just as companies should be talking to their customers.  After-all employees are our biggest asset and advocate for our companies and brands.
  • Don’t bribe or threaten the community. Just as in branding you must be authentic.  People are smart, cynical, and suspicious.  Have conversations, mean what you say and keep your promises.
  • Don’t be afraid of the negative. Hearing feedback that is negative about our style as a manager is hard, but it we fail to listen to our audience (our consumers) we risk feeding the beast.  With the internet, nothing is secure.  Your team is not only gossiping at work but also online on social platforms and forums and not just Facebook.  Glassdoor and Forums on Indeed are common sites where employee go to let off steam squarely with in the public eye and with open access.

 

  • Survey the troops. You don’t have to be a big brand to survey your employees waiting around for your organization to facilitate an employee engagement survey.  Tools like exit interviews and surveys can be created for free using online tools like Survey Monkey.

Be sure to check out Part 2 of When the Grapevine is Good.

 

 

About the University of Kentucky study with Travis J. Grosser and Virginie Lopez-Kidwell, both doctoral candidates in management, Joe Labianca examined the social interactions in a branch of a U.S. company, surveying 30 of its 40 employees about their social networks in the office, whom they gossiped with and how, and how much informal influence each colleague had.  The more staff much members gossiped, the better their understanding of their social environment and the higher their peers rated their influence.

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell (@jmillermerrell) is a workplace change agent, author and consultant focused on human resources and talent acquisition living in Austin, TX. Recognized by Forbes as a top 50 social media influencer and is a global speaker. She’s the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource and host of the Workology Podcast.

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