South-Western - Management  
Carry On the Conversation: Helping Employees Make Sense of What Happens At Work
Topic Communication
Key Words Company culture, communication, grapevine, opinion leaders
News Story

Internal communication professionals have honed strategic messages about the company vision and progress toward company goals in formal channels like magazine articles, videos, and intranet publications. Yet, they often overlook the power of face-to-face peer communication in shaping and changing behavior.

An employee's attitude about their corporate culture begins on their first day on the job during their formal orientation. They read the company manual and talk with their supervisor to learn what they can do to be an ideal employee. Yet, people learn more about a company through the informal conversations that take place when they meet their coworkers than through any official orientation. Coworkers tell stories about the boss and about the business environment. These conversations can be anticipated and managed so that they take place in a more planned way. Informal conversation and storytelling can have a dramatic effect on helping people to grasp a company's issues and to come to a positive opinion.

Peer-to-peer conversations generally take place in three ways:
1. personal conversations
2. task conversations
3. organizational conversations

A study of the grapevine in a company with 600 employees and 67 managers revealed some surprising truths about workplace conversations:

1. The grapevine gets activated in response to formal media. If not much is being communicated, the grapevine remains relatively quiet. 2. No one person leads opinions all of the time.
3. People prefer to talk with someone at their own level, not someone up the ladder.
4. People in staff positions are more likely to talk with people in other departments.

Peer "opinion leaders" are the people who disseminate information to their coworkers more regularly than others. They expose themselves to more media and information because they like to be "in the know." They are usually not supervisors but are well-connected people who span several different departments. To capitalize on informal communication opportunities, companies should identify the opinion leaders in their ranks and get them together. These leaders can help a company frame their messages so they make sense to their peers. They can also show support when they are asked for input.


The article advocates recognizing the grapevine and using it to the company's advantage. Do some further reading on grapevine or informal communication channels in your textbook. What are some of the positive aspects of a "grapevine" as an informal communication venue at work?


What is a "peer opinion leader"? Give at least three defining characteristics.

Source "Carry On the Conversation: Helping Employees Make Sense of What Happens At Work," Communication World, March-April, 2005, v22 i2 p24(3).
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