I Heard It Through the Grapevine


I still remember the day a coworker came to me and asked if I had heard the latest news. I thought it would be an important piece of information that would directly affect me in some way. Maybe there was new legislation created to improve on our current practices. But it wasn’t. An employee had supposedly gotten into a physical altercation with a coworker.

I am a government employee, currently working for the Department of Veterans Affairs.  I chose my career path in order to serve my fellow veterans with compassion and respect. Our customer service image has suffered greatly because of all the negative media surrounding our processes, several of our practices, and poor choices made by some individuals.

There are so many changes and upcoming improvements that at times it is difficult for employees to remember changes implemented just weeks prior. Leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to find an effective balance, while attempting to create new standard operating procedures, and managing the large workforce hired to meet the ever growing combat veteran population.

Unfortunately, as a result, many employees turn to the grapevine, also known as the rumor mill, as their main source of information. This creates gaps in communication and creates a greater opportunity for easily avoidable errors.

The grapevine does not only exist in the workplace; it has its roots everywhere. It does not discriminate by race, gender, religion, class nor political affiliation. Every person will experience multiple interactions with the grapevine on a daily basis, but what is done with any information obtained from the grapevine is a choice. My advice is to ignore anything not ascertained directly from the source to improve your credibility and limit erroneous assumptions.

Properly used, the grapevine can be a great tool for managers and for networking ideas. As a manager, I will sometimes share information with employees that I know are deeply embedded in the midst of the grapevine, just to spread good news among the team. It can be used to connect people of different beliefs and backgrounds in order to achieve greater common goals. But as anything related to human nature, it is mostly utilized to spread negative and malicious rumors. I have witnessed as the grapevine has demoralized whole teams and individuals when used as a gossip tool.

The military taught me that in order to avoid miscommunication, I was to keep my direct reports informed at all times. A smart piece of advice that I heed and encourage others to practice to this day. Not only do I encourage leaders to keep their direct reports informed at all times, I also constantly remind fellow employees that passing along information heard on the grapevine, is nothing more than gossiping.

Another drawback of listening to the grapevine is that the information shared is mostly based on speculation, which rapidly can deteriorate to gossip, leading to undesirable results. That is the primary reason why managers should keep their team informed at all times. Something that may seem trivial to leaders, and frequently overlooked by team leaders, is how employees generally want to do the right thing. It is the manager’s responsibility to provide their teams with the necessary tools for the successful performance of their duties. Expectations cannot be met when the information provided is incomplete or inaccurate.

An email a week with updates or reminders can help to build a stronger team and maintain open channels of accurate communication. Electronic correspondence, combined with periodic staff meetings, will go a long way to improve your team’s morale.   Remember that not communicating frequently with your direct reports can and will surely allow the grapevine to communicate with them for you.

Morale is a direct reflection of the leadership. As the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald remarked, “Improving employees’ experience is inextricably linked to improving Veterans’ experience.” It is our responsibility to provide outstanding leadership for our employees during these dynamic times.  By periodically using the grapevine to spread simple yet accurate information, you can prevent it from steering your team in the wrong direction.  Do not just make a difference, be the difference in your organization that you want to see and always strive to lead by example instead of with words. Words are easily forgotten but examples are always easier for others to follow.

Alberto Principe is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mary Muth

Well spoken Alberto…using the “grapevine” should be an excellent tool. But in my experience has been used as gossip. If we only we thought before we spoke. Or on the other hand treated others like we would like to be treated, the world would be a better place. Excellent blog you are a gifted writer.

Carla Roberson, M.A. Ed.D.

Alberto, this is an excellent post and initiative that you have started. In the 1 1/2 that I have worked with you I have watched you grow and flourish as a leader, yet your fundamental principles have remained constant. Please keep inspiring others to, “Live the dream!”