The Power of the Grapevine: Making networks work for you

by Maya Townsend


For as long as there have been people, there has been a grapevine that we use to spread information both true and false. The Greeks recognized the power of word of mouth and embodied it in the goddess of rumor named Pheme. Her Roman counterpart, Fama, was often malicious and described by Virgil as “of all evils, the most swift.”

What role does rumor and word of mouth play in your organization? Is it more destructive, like Fama, spreading fears, suspicions, and paranoia? Or more like Pheme spreading important information? How can you make the maligned grapevine work for you and your communication initiatives?

The social brain

The first thing we need to remember is that humans are hard-wired to connect. Researchers like Robin Dunbar have shown that humans have unusually large neocortices in comparison to our body mass. Our larger brain size can’t be explained by survival needs. Instead, like many primates, our neocortex size determines how many social connections we can maintain.

Once, social connections made the difference between whether we would survive or die. Lacking fangs, claws or thick hides, our best defense against predators was collective action. Today, most of us no longer confront animals who want to eat us, but we maintain our social brains. Gossip provides us with important information about relationships, potential opportunities, and changing political dynamics. It helps us build connections and develop trust. But how can we transform the grapevine from a detriment into an asset?

The social network

Humans at work naturally form connections with people they trust, value for their expertise, and find energizing. Collectively, these connections form an invisible web that underlies all organizational activity. Understanding the social network can help communication professionals use it wisely.

If there are 1,000 people in the organization, who do you depend on to spread the word reliably and accurately? Many professionals take the mass communication approach and blanket the organization with information, relying on quantity to make messages stick. However, studies of human networks show us that within a group of 1,000 people, 50–100 are called critical connectors. These individuals have disproportionate influence over the whole. They are:

  • More connected (Hubs)
  • Serve as the conduits to areas that otherwise are less connected (Gatekeepers)
  • Those who have the knowledge and connections to understand how the organization works and get things done quickly (Pulse-takers)

Each of these roles provides valuable shortcuts communication professionals can use to increase both efficiency and effectiveness. It begins with understanding each of the critical connectors.

The Hub

When I walked into the office, I was greeted immediately by Liza. Head of administration for the department, Liza coordinates all financial, operational and logistical matters. She also has taken on the informal role of department greeter. Everyone who walks into the office is welcomed by Liza and inevitably pulled into lively conversation. Liza helps brighten the mood of the department, where people are prone to overwork and seriousness, but she also is a critical collector of information. If you need an answer to a tricky question, Liza can most likely help because she never stops collecting data.

Everyone knows someone like Liza who habitually and instinctively gathers information, connections or gossip. These critical connectors, called Hubs, tend to be curious and engaged. They’re not always the most extroverted people in the room. Some Hubs focus on technical expertise, creating vast networks of connections with people who can add to their knowledge. Others become center points of problem solving, developing reputations as people who can help people find solutions to vexing challenges. What they all have in common is their disproportionately high degree of connection.

Hubs are invaluable to communication professionals because of their large number of connections. If a hospital needs to spread a message about a new hand-washing procedure, previewing the message with the Hubs increases the effectiveness of information dissemination because the Hubs can share that information with their many connections.

The Gatekeeper

Jerry’s copyediting team was overwhelmed. They worked far more hours than anyone would have liked, but continued their grueling pace in order to follow through on commitments. When he became the team’s manager, Jerry tried to develop a work intake process that would help them manage their work better. It was effective for a while, but an organization change, led by the newly appointed CEO, threw the system into disarray. Jerry figured that the organization would resume stability soon. In the meantime, the best he could do was to protect his team from outside distractions and time drains. He started closely managing the flow of information into the team. Soon, no message could get to the team without traveling through Jerry.

Managers like Jerry are common in the work world. Some, like Jerry, are motivated by helping their teams manage capacity. Others are territorial or find self-worth in being in a position of power. Regardless of their motivations, Gatekeepers control the flow of information between the system and a specific group.

Communication professionals must pay attention to Gatekeepers if they want messages to spread throughout an organization. Reaching out proactively to Gatekeepers helps engage them in the process and alleviate any concerns they might have about passing along messages. Pre-launch conversations with Gatekeepers can help make sure information doesn’t get caught behind a gate and prevented from reaching employees.

The Pulse-taker

When I started with a new client several months ago, I asked who I should talk with to gain insight into how the division operates. “Shelley’s the one,” said the admin assistant. Shelley’s name was repeated by the IT manager, procurement officer, and warehouse manager. When I met Shelley, I was surprised to find an introverted, self-effacing woman with an unexpected sense of humor.

Once we started talking, it became clear that Shelley knew almost everything there was to know about the organization. She not only knew processes, but she also knew who to approach in order to circumvent a procedure in order to accommodate a rush order, get a quick decision, or free up resources that were being held back. When I observed out loud that she had an amazing ability to navigate the system, simply shrugged. “It’s just what I do,” she said.

Pulse-takers like Shelley are extraordinary in their ability to find the quickest, smoothest ways to get things done. Unlike Shelley, most pulse-takers tend to fly under the radar; often people don’t know how effective they are. But Pulse-takers can be invaluable to communication professionals. If a message has been sent accurately, the Pulse-takers will be able to describe it, even if they didn’t receive it directly. The Pulse-takers’s degree of accuracy can tell you how well the grapevine is communicating your information and whether adjustments are needed.

Making networks work for you

The grapevine doesn’t need to be a destructive force within organizations. With savvy use of Hubs, Gatekeepers, and Pulse-takers, communication professionals can use word of mouth to spread needed and important information, evoking the assets of the goddess Pheme and bringing her gifts into the workplace.


About the author / Maya Townsend, founder of Partnering Resources, helps leaders, teams and organizations thrive in our networked world. She works with corporations, community groups, and nonprofits to help identify strategy, mobilize networks, and lead change. Co-editor of Handbook for Strategic HR (AMACOM), her writing on networks, change leadership, and business ecosystems has appeared in Nonprofit Quarterly, CIO, Talent Management, and other publications. Connect with her on LinkedIn.