The Grapevine – The Communication Nexus Within the Informal Organisation

April 24, 2023

by John O. Burdett

The grapevine – the communication nexus within the informal organisation – is real, it shapes behaviour in a profound way and lack of attention merely makes it grow stronger.

The Power and Influence of the Grapevine

Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of the grapevine. There are no upfront costs. No one needs to approve “the message.” It is unhindered by policies, procedures or the corporate agenda. Formal structures and guidelines are skirted with ease. International boundaries are irrelevant. And it is truly dynamic; it can move in any and all directions at the speed of sound.

Only in the velocity of the internet do we find its equal. The latter is, of course, full of fantasy, false assertions and people whose only claim to fame is their fleeting and meaningless fame. Conversely, the research suggests the grapevine in the modern organisation is up to 80% accurate.

If it were packaged as “networking software” it would be a killer application. By comparison, traditional corporate communication teams have access to little more than a bow and arrow when compared to the sophisticated weaponry the informal organisation has at its beck and call.

The term “grapevine” came into common usage during the American Civil War. The tangle of telegraph wires that followed the army, many strung haphazardly from trees, were said to look like “grapevines.” The often confusing and garbled messages these lines delivered led Union soldiers to refer to “the grapevine telegraph” as a way to describe gossip and unreliable rumours. Cyber-gossip, for that’s what much of today’s social networking sites are really all about, amounts to little more than traditional forms of gossip on steroids. Not that we should underestimate our need for gossip.

Today’s Grapevine

The term (grapevine) may have become popular in the nineteenth century, but story, rumour, gossip and, in times of crisis, a need to know represent a form of human expression that had already reached full flower when our ancestors had woolly mammoth steaks for breakfast. Or, as British zoologist, Robin Dunbar, puts it, “Gossip is to humans what grooming is to our primate cousins.” Chimps, incidentally, spend 20% of their day on grooming.

Many thousands of years of survival have honed within us an extraordinary ability for those outside of the leadership loop to:

  1. “Read the landscape;”
  2. Quickly recognise and share information that suggests danger;
  3. Be highly attuned to actions that might cause one to be rejected by the community;
  4. Constantly assess shifts in power and status; and
  5. Form defensive alliances when threat emerges.

Because we now work in an environment that is physically safe doesn’t mean that those early survival instincts have been lost. When the future is unsure, when people feel threatened, those same deeply embedded emotions feed today’s grapevine – exhibiting patterns of behaviour that Homo sapiens, the “wise ape,” developed when language was still in its infancy and creativity found full expression on a cave wall.

This article is an extract from “The Other Culture: Cultivate The Grapevine“, © Orxestra® Inc.

John O. Burdett is founder of Orxestra® Inc. He has extensive international experience as a senior executive. As a consultant he has worked in more than 40 countries for organisations that are household names. John has worked on organisation culture for some of the world's largest organisations. His ongoing partnership with TRANSEARCH International means that his thought leading intellectual property, in any one year, supports talent management in many hundreds of organisations around the world. Get in touch with John O. Burdett »

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