Psychological Safety and Grapevine Communication
Is the company grapevine supporting or choking your productivity?
A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is busy putting on its shoes. - Said no one in particular.
I was thinking about this quote as the recent Silicon Valley Bank failure was making news. There were many knee-jerk reactions as zillions of people worked to assign blame and mobilize the Armies of Outrage to mete out punishment. Now that the pundits driven by raw nerves have moved on to something else and calmer heads have moved into the room, we're learning things that can help us make better decisions. For example, this bit from the Wall Street Journal just a few days ago:
Depositors were draining their accounts via smartphone apps and telling their startup networks to do the same. But inside Silicon Valley Bank, executives were trying to navigate the U.S. banking system’s creaky apparatus for emergency lending and to persuade its custodian bank to stay open late to handle a multibillion-dollar transfer.
The depositors won the race.
Alex Tabarrok, in "The New Madness of Crowds," states what happened more succinctly:
Greater transparency and lower transaction costs have intensified the madness of the masses and expanded their reach. From finance to politics and culture, no domain remains untouched by the new madness of crowds.
There is a smaller version of the New Madness of Crowds that has been around since humans started to organize in large groups: The grapevine communication network. Sometimes referred to as the "corporate grapevine," grapevine communications are the informal transfer of information between people that is independent of medium, location, time, authority, and hierarchical barriers. The energy flow of grapevine communications manifest in many forms, such as gossip, rumors, and the mythical water cooler conversations touted as so important by the back-to-the-office advocates. The channels that carry the energy are the usual suspects: word-of-mouth, email, texts, chat messages, and social media.
Dismissing or refusing to pay close attention to what travels along the grapevine is a decision one makes at their own peril. You may not be interested in the grapevine, but the grapevine is interested in you.
Perhaps most important is the fact that information traveling on the grapevine moves much, much faster than any official communication. Which means it also arrives first. The availability bias and primacy effect combine to make the first wave of information stickier in everyone's memory. It becomes the "truth" by which any subsequent information is evaluated and decisions are made.
Grapevines are part of any organization of sufficient size to foster and support informal communications. Organizations cannot not have grapevines. They are simply part of any organization involving human beings. I don't know if this has been researched, but based on experience, an organization of somewhere around 30-40 people will start to show a basic grapevine.
While the information shared in grapevine communications isn't official company policy or announcements, it is more often regarded as more accurate information. Changes in management, impending layoffs, content of closed door meetings, company performance, and actual project status are just a few examples of topics that, when communicated on the grapevine, are regarded as more accurate than an official communication from management.
The important question for business leaders is are you going to take an active role in the creation and care of the organization's grapevine or are you going to let it grow organically, perhaps letting it be established by others in the organization? The answer is non-trivial as the nature and quality of your organization's grapevine will go far in determining whether or not you're able to provide the necessary psychological safety for high performing teams.
According the the Google Books Ngram Viewer, the term "psychological safety" is a recent phenomenon, having grown in use in a way that matches the use and reach of the World Wide Web and social media.
It's a "social construct," as the cool kids like to say, that means many things to just as many people. While often dependent on what any one person's "lived experience" might conjure up, there seem to be two primary ways to frame just what it means to have psychological safety. One is to declare what isn't present in a particular setting. Along with the behaviors defined by law, various declarations I've read include the absence of fear, blame, victimization, triggering words, hurting of feelings, interruptions, judgement, retribution, etc. It's a lengthy list that increases regularly. The other is to declare what is present. Listening, positive feedback, open mindedness, vulnerability, respect, compassion, and "authentic collaboration" are just a few I've seen on the must-be-there list.
I'll have more to say on the subject of psychological safety in a future post. But for the purposes of this post, I'll just state the observation that each of these lists have merit and many of the things on each of these lists are incompatible as implemented. Establishing what qualifies as psychologically safe for your organization will defy any formulaic approach and cannot be left to develop on it's own. Which gets me back to the importance of grapevine communication.
Grapevine Communication for the Master Gardener
I mentioned earlier there are two general ways grapevine communication can develop - on it's own or with guidance. My recommendation on the former is straightforward: Don't let that happen! Left to develop organically, it could blossom into something amazing, but it probably won't. Even if it starts out great, eventually they seem to sour when left to their own devices. It only takes a couple of bad actors to poison the well. And the long-term effects can be devastating.
The confusion, anxiety, and uncertainty that results from the rapid spread of misinformation is never entirely undone.
Damage to trust and individual reputations can take years to repair, if ever.
Decreases in morale, particularly if they are chronic, can have a lasting affect on productivity and quality. Paradoxically, employees with low morale are also more resistant to change and building trust.
Correcting bad communication patterns is a lot more work then investing in the time to establish and maintain healthy and productive patterns. But I want to stress that just because grapevine communications will establish themselves in your organization, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Much like actual grapevines, they aren't weeds to be eradicated. If you know how to care for them, they can produce some pretty impressive juice. Whatever the channel, here are just a few of the benefits that come from having healthy grapevine communication patterns and the things you can do the establish and maintain them...
A fundamental tenet of Agile is the idea of transparency. A key element to establishing this is to insure there are robust opportunities for compassionate feedback. Passive things you can do to encourage a culture of transparency include easy to understand expectations and displays of shared progress. Where the feedback becomes more dynamic (and influential) is with inter-human communication. All of the good information available about communicating face-to-face still apply and in this amazing age of technology we can add technical elements that enhance positive transparency. Chat applications that are freely accessible and allow for anyone to participate in, or at least view, conversations have been shown to be very effective, particularly if they are also searchable. Curated conversations can store a tremendous amount of information wealth.
Understand what kind of community rules are in play within your organization and teams. Are they working as if they were a town? A tribe? A college campus? An expedition into the wild? Knowing the unstated rules for cooperating and acting within those expectations goes a long way toward establishing a lasting trust.
Be sure your employees have a sense of ownership in the work they do, a strong sense of responsibility for their particular contributions to the organization's success. By keeping at least a background awareness of how their work affects the lives and well-being of all their colleagues, they are much more likely to do the right thing when it comes to putting information on the grapevine.
Whether your organization's grapevine communication is producing wine or vinegar, it's important to frequently and regularly listen to what it's telling you about the organization's culture. The tone and and tempo of the flow of information will reveal where there may be issues related to trust, work satisfaction, and overall well-being.
NB: A few months ago I was interviewed by Nicola Vetter and Peter Axtell on the WhatsNext.com podcast. It was an enjoyable and wide-ranging conversation centered on Stoicism, for the most part: “How to Make Wise Decisions in Times of Uncertainty”
And a reminder: Agile for Business Leaders Meet-up To register: Click Here
Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash
Thank you! This serves as a great reminder to me to ask about how communications happen in a team/business unit/company BEFORE I join. I want to avoid working in a place where the grapevine is the main source of communication. It sucks up so much time.