With every official system of communication there is an unofficial system, which is commonly referred to as the “Grapevine” or the “Rumor Mill.” This communication system is a social network used to transmit social news and often, an organization’s official information, in an informal manner.
The grapevine is not a preferred method of communicating information within an organization. Official news traveling through the grapevine can have detrimental effects upon morale and operations, and may affect individual reputations. It is a method for receiving information, but should never be used to transmit information.
According to IFSTA’s Fire Department Company Officer, Second Edition, flaws in the grapevine system that make it unacceptable from a department’s point of view, and which should be unacceptable from an individual’s point of view are:
Some organizations and individuals choose to reduce the passing of information through the grapevine, while others choose to pretend it does not exist. The latter tends to maximize the negative effects of this communication system. To ignore the grapevine is to completely exclude yourself from it, causing you no way to monitor the information content. To minimize the effects of the grapevine we must recognize its existence and inevitability, and we must provide an adequate flow of official and accurate information.
“Rumors develop and grow when the members of the organization have a desire to understand a situation, but the facts are ambiguous or concealed” (IFSTA Company Officer, Second Edition p.63). Let’s face it; the rumor mill in many fire departments is alive and well. It is easy to get sucked into the he said she said chatter. The more the information travels in this unofficial system of communication the more it gets blown out of proportion. Some people start rumors for the fun of it, while others become the victims of rumors that began from a subtle communication or from someone simply passing on a tidbit of information that may lack accurate, factual, complete content or context. I imagine each of us has been a victim of a rumor or has knowingly or unknowingly participated in the transmission of information across the grapevine.
Ignoring the rumor mill, especially when you may be the subject of the rumor is not an easy task. In fact, human nature makes it almost impossible to ignore. It takes a conscious effort on your part to avoid spreading your own rumors in an effort to protect your reputation, particularly when emotions are running high. As well, your supporters may feel insulted to know their co-worker or good friend is the subject of a rumor. In an effort to help, they consciously or unconsciously get involved in a situation on your behalf and begin to add their own two-cents. This often exacerbates the situation and develops even more rumors. Before you know it, you are back to the beginning of the he said she said, but now the rumors originate from you and your supporters.
No one likes being victimized. It often causes us to feel embarrassed, isolated, and unappreciated. We begin to share our story with great passion, over and over again, in an effort to rally support around us. Before long, no one remembers what the actual rumor was, because the story we made up is so much better. How dare anyone say such things about you? Well, if you allow yourself to get sucked into the vicious cycle and you are unable to view your actions objectively, there is good chance you have evened the score by bad mouthing someone else in the process of arguing your point. Congratulations! You have proven you are human and no better than the source of the original rumor.
The only advice I can offer about the rumor mill is the fact that it exists, and while we may not be able to totally control it, we can control our role within this social communication system. Within an organization, the department can offer official information on a regular basis to combat rumors and to prevent rumors from being started, due to a lack of information and speculation. The department, when able and when it chooses to, can provide official information that corrects a circulating rumor about official department business.
As individuals, we can choose not to offer anything to the grapevine. We can take a proactive stand (leadership) to discourage the spreading of rumors, and when we are the victim of a rumor we can choose to behave professionally and not allow it to get to us. Thank your coworkers and friends for their support, but ask them not to comment any further on the rumor in an effort to limit its credibility and so they are not adding to the rumor mill.
Entertaining the grapevine can often be a fool’s game. It has plenty of victims and no winners. Your time and energy will be better spent if you direct it toward something more productive, like training!
IFSTA Fire Department Company Officer, Second Edition, Fifth Printing
NICK J. SALAMEH is a retired Fire/Emergency Medical Services Captain II and previous Training Program Manager for the Arlington County (VA) Fire Department, with which he served 31 years of his more than 36 years in the fire service. He served as chair of the Northern Virginia Fire Departments Training Committee. Nick is a contributor to Fire Engineering Magazine, www.fireengineering.com and Stop Believing Start Knowing, https://www.facebook.com/StopBelievingStartKnowing/.