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Tell-Tale Signs: Decoding the Secrets of the Corporate Grapevine

11/02/2014 10:30 GMT | Updated 12/04/2014 10:59 BST

Once upon a time we all told stories. As children we learn about the world outside through our parents' fairy tales. Wolves, beasties and wicked stepmothers teach us that danger lurks for the unwary and we should always try to be brave, tell the truth, and avoid hurting other people's feelings. We tell stories like this to children because they deliver complex ideas in a simple but memorable form. That's why religions use parables, and primitive tribes passed their collective learning and memory down through their tales.

The same thing happens inside companies. The concept of an active corporate grapevine is hardly a groundbreaking idea, but new approaches to management have given this background noise new prominence and weight. Every theory from social network analysis to the so-called 'learning organisation' tells us we should see the company as a living system rather than a machine engineered simply to make money. And that's why senior management shouldn't be too quick to dismiss the chatter round the coffee machine: it's the stories being told that define who your company really is and what it believes in.

Myths, legends and shaggy dogs

The tales told round the water cooler take many forms. Some are just shaggy dogs designed to raise a laugh, while some are news broadcasts - 'Guess what I just heard'. Others are part of the informal induction process, designed to teach new recruits what is (and isn't) considered good manners round here, and warn them where the dragons be. But even the sort of stories that may just look like an opportunity to let off steam deserve a closer look.

For example, it's no accident that more stories get told about failure than about success. This isn't just schadenfreude, it's the way people learn. In evolutionary terms it's more important to survive than thrive - think of all those fairy stories: most of them are warnings about what not to do. At the same time, every organisation has its stock of corporate legends which are passed down more or less intact through each new generation of employees. These are part urban myth (no witnesses can ever be found) and part myth in the more conventional sense, in that they are tales of the powerful told by the powerless. Stories like these usually cluster around the small number of people in the company who have real influence, but they can also be about the trappings and symbols of power, like the chauffeur-driven car, the expense account, or the directors' dining-room. Even the 'special' carpet on the executive floor (I kid you not, I've heard one of those myself).

For example, one CEO who introduced an economy class travel policy found out later that the corporate rumour mill was accusing him of continuing to fly business class himself. That wasn't actually true, but no amount of denial could destroy the story: it was what people wanted to hear. Experience shows that the best way to neutralise a myth like this is to create a different story that's so good it will supersede the first one. That CEO should have made sure someone saw him queuing disconsolately at the economy check-in desk. That one would have been round the company before the week was out.

So how do you tap into the story network, and how can you use what you discover?

Listen and learn

If you do an internet search on 'narrative' and 'organizations' you'll find hundreds of groups, companies and consultancies that claim to be working in this area. Everyone from academics, to writers, to therapists, all promising to teach you how to 'tell stories' that will work such wonders as building trust, sharing knowledge, facilitating learning and changing behaviour. But as David Snowden, who has many years of experience in this field, observes, "you should be wary of the shift from story to storytelling. The best thing you can do with your company's stories is simply to listen to them, especially if they're telling you what you don't want or didn't expect to hear."

If you then find yourself writing those stories down, at least resist the temptation to tidy them up, and put them in the staff magazine. The original versions were powerful precisely because they were a bit raw around the edges: most corporate communications are too polished to be convincing. And never, ever fake a story, however good your intentions: you'll be found out in five minutes.

And at the risk of stating the obvious, the closer your official corporate communications are to what's really going on, the more credibility they will have. For example, one company road-tested its new mission statement by getting together a group of bright, ambitious people who were known to be good gauges of the corporate mood. It was a great way to ensure that the final wording was as close as possible to employees' real experience of 'the way we do things round here'.

So before you start that culture change programme, or values programme, or anything else for that matter, spend some time eavesdropping on your company's stories. And I don't mean stalk your staff on social media to see what they're saying, because this is one area of business life where it's best to do things the old-fashioned way. Yes, there will always be some who Facebook their frustrations, but most people have got too savvy by now to post anything that might conceivably come back to haunt them. So don't log on, just listen. A good excuse, if any were needed, to get out of the executive dining-room and spend more time in the canteen. Stay a while; you may hear something to your advantage.