Swinging on the office grapevine: the Tarzan approach to organizational health

Susan M. Hann, P.E., AICP, ICMA-CM
Deputy City Manager
City of Palm Bay, Florida
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

If you've read some of my previous articles for the Reporter, you may have noticed a few themes including topics seemingly unrelated to public works such as the Wizard of Oz and physical fitness. However, one of the other prominent themes is that of communication—something that is vital to the health of any organization and of any relationship.

So, what is your perspective on the office or community grapevine? Is it a hotbed of malicious gossip that is hurting your agency or is it a tool that can be used to foster positive relationships and organizational health? The culture of communication can enhance organizational strength or it can be the virus that leads to organizational failure. An organization with strong communication is typically more unified and mission-focused. An organization with poor communication is typically dysfunctional. What role can the grapevine play in your organization?

How you use the grapevine is up to you. Communication happens whether you participate or not. There are numerous grapevines in your community and in your organization that all facilitate extensive communication. You can choose to contribute to the grapevines—perhaps even building links among them—or you can try to cut the grapevines. Trying to stifle communication is not an easy task. The more you try to stop communication, the more it happens in other directions. Endeavors meant to restrict communication often have the opposite effect of encouraging more talk about why talk is being restricted! Overtly limiting traditional communication channels can also lead to the creation of underground communication networks—those that are neither visible nor accessible, but exist to the detriment of the organization.

A better approach to healthy communication is to embrace the grapevine and ride it through the jungle as if you were Tarzan. Recognize that employees and citizens are going to talk about you and your organization—so give them something good to talk about! Be proactive with your communication and develop a reputation for honest, direct, clear and timely communication.

To get you started thinking about the grapevine and how you can use it to improve your management style and your organization, I've posed a few questions for you to consider in the form of an informal audit for both personal and organizational communication.

Personal Communication Audit:

Did you talk to at least five of your employees and/or coworkers this week? Connecting to the employee grapevine is a great way to learn what's going on in your agency. Knowing about smoldering fires before they become towering infernos will allow you to be a more effective, proactive manager.

Did you participate in a public forum or community event this week and talk to citizens? Meeting citizens at community events—such as a homeowners' association meeting or a local festival—is a great way to get connected to the community grapevines. Finding and solving community issues before they become problems for your elected officials is a very effective way to do business. If you are part of the community grapevine, you can find and resolve issues proactively.

Have you met anyone new this week? Expanding your communication network will build new relationships in the community. You never know where these relationships might lead, so take advantage of any opportunity and be proactive about meeting new people. Attend a Chamber of Commerce lunch or reach out to employees you haven't met yet.

Did you return all of your phone calls within 24 hours? This is one example where the grapevine will talk about you and your performance. Do you want to be known as responsive or unreachable? How you handle phone calls says a lot about you—make sure the right message is getting out there.

Did you gossip this week? Everybody loves to gossip. Isn't that what most of the popular TV shows are all about? So, why not do it at work? There are some people that just invite conversation about them. Besides, nobody would repeat what you said, right? Time and time again, I have seen malicious gossip spread by seemingly nice and well-meaning people resulting in very painful experiences. Set the example you want for your troops. However you behave will be communicated throughout the organization.

Organizational Communication Audit:

Do your employees know your organization's mission and goals? If not, get started getting the word out today. If people don't know where they are supposed to be going, the organization can't be very effective.

Do your employees know your corporate values? Are the values the same at the bottom and the top of the organizational ladder? If there is litter on the way in to city hall, how many of your employees would pick it up? Perhaps you're in an organization that has disjointed values. If that's the case, at least set some values for your team. Talk to your crew, agree upon the values for your team and set a good example for the rest of your organization.

Do your employees work in silos? Communication among silos is difficult. If your organization is highly compartmentalized, try to develop opportunities for organizational cross-talk. Try an interdepartmental bowling league or a company breakfast. Find a project that needs the cooperation of more than one silo. Build the grapevines among the silos!

Do your managers "hoard" information? This style is embraced by the "knowledge is power" crowd, who believe that information should be parceled out on a need-to-know basis. While this may be an excellent approach for the CIA, this method can be very destructive in a public works organization. If your crew doesn't know why they are doing a job they are less likely to make good decisions in the field. If your mid-managers are unaware of policy decisions they may be less able to keep their folks on the right path. Use the grapevines to discourage hoarding behavior by getting information out to the network.

Do your employees refer to their leadership as "management" as if they are a separate species? Ideally, a manager should be seen as a team member who is facilitating getting the job done, not an obstruction that needs to be overcome and worked around. If management is viewed as an aggravating impediment, this is not a healthy organization. Management needs to connect with the employees. Using the organizational grapevines is a good way to reach the network of employees.

Does the media treat your organization fairly? If your organization is repeatedly targeted by the media for negative press, you should review your communications strategies. Usually, a proactive approach with the media leads to improved relationships with more balanced reporting. If you decide to "no comment" your way out of every situation, the media will go to others for comments, so your story never gets told. A story gets told, but it likely won't be your story. If you are more proactive about keeping the media informed of good news and bad news, they will start to get (and report) a more balanced picture of your organization.

Now that you have evaluated the communication in your network, here are a few easy examples of how you can use the grapevine effectively and proactively:

Issue press releases frequently. Most likely something good happens in your organization at least once per week—maybe even more often. Did you fix a dangerous pothole, did you respond to a citizen in need, did you help the fire department fight a brush fire? Whatever it is—let somebody know!

Be visible in the community. Being present in the community creates opportunities for informal problem awareness and resolution. Visibility also allows people to get to know you and ultimately to trust you.

Communicate with employees frequently. This includes walking around and talking as well as semi-formal communication such as weekly e-news or even daily e-news. All of your employees don't have e-mail? Post the news on the bulletin boards or hand it out with the paychecks.

Eat. Mealtime chats are a great way to get to know what's going on in your community and in your organization. Host a monthly lunch meeting with some or all of your employees. Invite the local homeowners' association reps to breakfast. You can even do a bring-your-own brown bag session to discuss a specific topic or no topic at all.

The concept behind all of these strategies is to create a culture of communication. Nature abhors a vacuum. If there is an absence of communication from you, someone else will fill it! Be proactive and diligent about establishing and maintaining open lines of communication in every direction. The grapevines are growing strong in your organization and your community. Make the choice to grab the grapevines and be a part of as many communication networks as possible. Although you may work in a jungle, the grapevine can be a very effective tool for keeping harmony in a diverse environment.

Susan M. Hann can be reached at (321) 952-3411 or hanns@palmbayflorida.org.