Saying too little too soon creates rumours!
Saying too much too late causes shock!

To remain relevant, many companies today make significant changes at different levels simultaneously. According to Gartner’s latest findings, over 80% of employees experience “cultural tensions” or competing priorities that they find difficult to balance. Therefore, it is extra important to be clear when communicating, to be present and to have an overview of the entire work situation of the staff. It is important to understand the reality to curb rumors and dissatisfaction that can spread.

All organisations are intertwined by an invisible network of relationships. These informal organisations- within-organisations can be seen as vines that meander and wrap themselves up into a difficult-to-understand and near-impenetrable weave: manager/subordinate, owner/manager, salesperson/customer, customer/delivery service, colleague/colleague, etc.

The relationships can be historical or related to people’s mutual interests, gender, opinions, politics, values – sometimes they’re even family ties. All these relationships are like well-developed grapevines, and they control how people think and behave. When managers or communicators, look at an organisation in this way, they realise pretty quickly how important it is to say things in the right way and at the right time.

When a change process gets underway, news spread quickly. Sound seeps out of a conference room, a question is answered ambiguously, or an incomplete document might make the rounds as a CC.

Be present as a leader and communicator

As a leader, you will never have water-tight control over the group for which you’re responsible, and not everyone is a natural at saying the right things, or at keeping quiet (and you don’t always feel good about keeping quiet yourself).

However, it is important to realise that as the person in charge for implementing change, you have a special responsibility and are expected to convey security and clarity. There is a lot to think about. Weighing your words and being authentic is not easy at all times; keep in mind that failure to communicate is also communication. It’s important to be personally present in the ongoing conversations; your actions often communicate more clearly than your words. By being present you can also absorb the sound of the grape vines and adjust your communication to prevent wrong interpretations of your message or bad attitudes toward it.

To illustrate the possible effects of the grapevine, let’s look at one of our own experiences.

It’s the case of a company that had been very successful for many years. The business cycle and the customers’ insatiable desire for new products had created a culture of success. Over the past decade, the company had also expanded geographically, establishing themselves in several countries and acquiring local competitors along the way. In short, business had been very good for a very long time; however, the overall market growth suddenly took a sharp downward turn.

It became obvious to the managers that further growth with existing business was no longer realistic: ‘We need to fundamentally question ourselves.’

The mental adjustment for everyone was difficult to handle. After the first lay-offs, the grapevine went into overdrive, teeming with activity like never before. Concerns were being voiced, and rumours were spreading quickly.

The main reasons were twofold: The management stayed in a state of denial and confusion for too long themselves, and they didn´t recognise the importance of communicating ‘bad’ news in an open and authentic way.

For the employees, it felt like they were bobbing around in a stormy sea without life jackets. The accomplished swimmers went looking for new, safer land. But those who were uncertain (or who couldn’t swim) froze up and wearily tread water as they awaited rescue.

Our example illustrates the power of the grapevine as well as what happens when people feel as though they’re working in unsafe conditions due to lack of clear and honest communication.

However, the grapevine can also be used to help move a company in a positive direction, in times of positive and progressive change. We should try to see it as an opportunity that we can influence, and not necessarily always an obstacle to change.

How can we make the grapevine work for us?

You need the courage to be sincere, you need to be crystal-clear about the ambition and objective of the change and, very importantly, you need to practice active listening to fully understand what’s actually going on in your organisation.

Practical tips for the change communicator

  • Understand the grapevines by analysing the talk of the organisation. Identify the organisation’s current change capacity and propensity linked to the specific change. There are useful methods for doing this type of analysis; The Change Barometer by Symbal is one of them.
  • Visualize why you want to change and what the change is about. Help people to see, feel and understand the future. With a creatively packaged story, you can facilitate the story of each manager or communicator who is going to pass the message on. In this way, the message is coherent. The fewer variations the better. Exemplify the impact of the change based on the local conditions, but keep the cause and the future vision clean.
  • Keep your ear on the ground throughout the change journey. A practical tip is to recruit your own change agents. Make sure they’re in on the notes and that you’re keeping in sync with them. They can help you use the grapevine to your advantage.
  • Be present where the discussions are going on. Whether it’s in the physical or the digital space—you should be there. Take initiatives for structured conversations where you participate and show that you care. Move around the corridors and listen to the buzz of the grapevines. By being present, you will be able to identify the opinions and attitudes that work for change, but also those that work against it.