Social Enterprise

Harness the power of the informal communications network

You can dismiss it as the rumor mill, but the truth is that this form of communication has its place in the corporation. Here's how to work with, not against, this phenomenon.

Once, when I was a young manager just beginning to explore team dynamics, I made a classic mistake. I mentioned in passing to one of my team members that things did not look good for the next quarter. Within a day, the entire region knew about our "doom and gloom" forecasts. In a week, the CEO called me on the carpet for opening my mouth. This experience forced me to think about both the amazing speed at which the information passed though the company and the knee-jerk negative reaction of my superiors.

One of the truisms of communications is that nothing travels faster than the speed of rumor. We express constant amazement that information moves though our company, usually distorted as it passes from one person to another. We deride gossips and urge people not to take part in watercooler discussions. Home offices issue a constant stream of memos aimed at quelling rumors. Yet, rumors persist, oftentimes overwhelming the official communications. Worse, the so-called rumor mill often contains more accurate information than the official channels. People seem to ferret out the truth, regardless of whether we know it ourselves.

What is the rumor mill?
Rather than use prejudicial terms like rumor mill or gossip, I suggest that we talk about the informal communications network. This little academic trick allows us to step away from our preconceived notions. It also allows us to start considering this as a social engineering problem rather than as a threat to our jobs and our professional competence.

The informal communications network originates in two natural human tendencies. The first is our tendency to talk; when you get two or more people in a room together, they communicate. The second is our tendency to form social hierarchies. These hierarchies show up in everything from kindergarten cliques to nursing homes; that the same basic rules govern their formation in business situations should come as no great surprise. These hierarchies tend to be based on the exchange of goods (money, activities, plans, or information are common commodities).

In business, the formal structure of the company controls the monetary and power rewards for activity. Therefore, as people interact, they trade the commodities they do have: information, resources under their control, and, occasionally, access to specific high-profile projects. Of these resources, information is the most plentiful and often the most valuable.

If we follow this train of logic, it becomes apparent that the exchange of information is, in fact, one of the ways that we measure the health of our company's social structure. The more people communicate with one another, the more complex and rich the social ties binding them become.

The perils of official communications
If this rich social network represents health in our company, how does it go so badly wrong? Why do we spend so much time stamping out rumors, and how do we turn it to our advantage?

As leaders from the formal structure, we face a unique challenge. Much of the information we could trade to gain status in the informal order, we gather under privileged contexts. Discussing it could open our organizations to litigation. Instead, we rely on formal communications, typically memos, with carefully vetted content and language.

Unfortunately, formal communications can't take the place of informal communications because they don't serve as a medium of exchange. Since the information is publicly distributed, it has no intrinsic trade value—it's a ubiquitous commodity. The only weight it carries comes from the reputation of the communicator. Someone known for speaking the truth will be heeded; those with a reputation for corporate-speak will find their communications drowned out by higher value communications from the informal network.

Using reality to our advantage
If we can't (and frankly don't want to) stop informal communications from occurring, what are our options? Do we just let the company proceed on its own course and hope for the best? Of course not. As leaders, we have a responsibility to our organizations to ensure that we meet our strategic objectives. Why should we waste such a precious resource?

Our first, and simplest, option is to ensure that our own reputation in the company adds weight to our communications. We can do this by avoiding some of the basic pitfalls of corporate communications: Say what we mean, acknowledge uncertainty, and, when necessary, admit in public if we are wrong. All of these steps add value to our communications. If people believe what we say in formal communications, it will limit the informal exchange of information to elaborations and clarifications. If they don't, people will exchange information attempting to discover what's really going on. This can lead to even further distortions and confusions, eventually creating a situation where people don't trust formal communications at all.

The second technique requires us to use the exchange of information to our advantage. We do this by carefully seeding select information into the network, placing it where it is most likely to reach the right ears.

To do this, we have to determine:
  • Who is the target for the information? Who do we want to share this information with? Single targets are more difficult to reach than wide groups of people.
  • Who is the target most likely to turn to in order to find out the information? Although it's tempting to believe they'll turn to us, don't assume that is true. Honestly look over the last few communications incidents to see from whom someone gathered information.
  • How can we seed the information we want passed on? I personally use the "idle chatter" method; I talk to a large number of people in all positions in every office I work in. When I need to seed information into the informal network, I let it slip during a conversation with the appropriate person.
  • Once we release the seed of information, it becomes a trade good. If we seeded correctly, it will reach our target.

Building credibility in our formal communications and leveraging the informal communications channel enable us to turn the corporate social network to our advantage. The inevitable and desirable exchange of information then serves as a powerful tool rather than a potential landmine.

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