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Organizational Communication: The Fundamentals

“The first function of an EXECUTIVE is to set up a robust system of communication.” — Chester Bernard

Organizations cannot function without a robust system of internal communication, just as you cannot function without a nervous system.

Image by Colin. Looking up from the bottom of the double spiral staircase designed by Giuseppe Momo for the Vatican Museums 1932.

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Two young girls using nonverbal communication: both gestures and facial expressions.

What Is Organizational Communication All About? 

Staff Organisation Diagram by Lewis, J. Slater, 1896. Notice how it reflects the modern corporation. It’s heirarchical nature, the fact that on high are those in authority, and that those in the organization are supposed to work for the shareholders.

Organizational communication sounds a bit squishy. Technically, it refers to information flows occurring within the “boundaries” of the organization. However, it’s important to constantly peer outside of organizational boundaries to examine how information flows into and out of the firm. This is of vital importance in terms of its implications for information security, public relations, and marketing.

The Importance of Organizational Communication

Organizational communication is essential for effective leadership. It allows leaders to:

  • Communicate their vision and goals to employees
  • Get feedback from employees on how to improve the organization
  • Build trust and rapport with employees
  • Resolve conflicts
  • Motivate employees
  • Improve productivity

The Challenges of Organizational Communication

There are a number of challenges that can make organizational communication difficult. These include:

  • Differences in communication style
  • Language barriers
  • Cultural differences
  • Lack of trust
  • Lack of communication channels

What is Are the Organizational Communication Flows

Large organizations typically have great challenges when it comes to robust communication.
Organizational communication becomes really difficult the more members there are in the organization.

In a bureaucracy (and most large organizations are), information flows downward from those of higher authority. It flows upward from those lower in authority. And it flows between equals, which is referred to as lateral communication. Finally, it flows around the organization in a non-hierarchical manner and a manner typically beyond the control of management. This is what we commonly call the rumor mill or the grapevine.

This definition, which is a very classic one, is based on the assumption of hierarchy. In other words, it assumes that when humans organize themselves into large groups, that within this group are individuals of higher status, who exert more influence and exercise greater authority than others. The fundamental focus on status and authority defines the elements of upward, downward, and lateral communication.

A lion’s share of the communication flows experience inside a assume a flow pattern similar to what you see on an organization chart. Information easily flows from the alpha male or alpha female downward. Information can also flow upward from those in the lower levels of the organization and potentially reaches the dominant male or female. However, most of the time it is intercepted, filtered, and distorted by a group known as middle management.


The Sweet Secret by Adolf Hering, 1892. Rumors are part of the process of how organizational communication flows about.

In large organizational environments, one must be skilled at sending information up the chain of command, package it to be sent down, interacting with peers, and of course, dealing with rumors. Let’s start with dealing with rumors.

Typically, managers and supervisors are not well connected in the informal networks known as the rumor mill. This is a huge strategic blunder. This is the channel where you find out information that higher-level management does not want you to know. It would not be unusual to find out about layoff from the rumor mill, before an official announcement by the executives. In fact, there have been stories about employees finding out about layoffs in the Wall Street Journal before they hear about it from the top.

And of course, one of the major objects of conversation in every organization is the boss. There is a certain type of extroverted personality who seems to have a little bit of extra time on their hands who loves to share what they know. And there’s no better person for them to talk about than the exploits of the boss. In some cases, rumors are very favorable. But in most cases, the grapevine tends to put out information about your screw-ups, weaknesses, and faults.

From a practical standpoint, one needs to identify these informal networks and listen to what’s being said. It’s in these informal networks that one will first hear about potential problems and opportunities. For example, you may hear about someone losing their job someone. That’s a problem for them, but it might be an opportunity for you.

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Upward Communication

Edmund Leighton (1853–1922) Courtship. Upward and downward communication often has an associated difference in status symbolized here as difference between a worker (the ferryman) and the lady.
Edmund Leighton (1853–1922) Courtship. Upward and downward communication often reflects status differences. This is symbolized here as the difference between a worker (the ferryman) and the lady.

Being skilled at pushing information into the upward communication channel basically involves having a good understanding of what information is needed by that upstream person and in what time frame. For example, they may not read that status report, but when it’s not there on time, they get worried. Someone skilled at boss management will also know how their manager prefers to process information.

For example, I’ve had managers who want to see something written and refuse to make any kind of decision until they see something on paper. Others, want to be told verbally. They want the interaction to want to ask questions; and I suppose, they want to test the truth of what they are hearing. Finally, the third type of manager wants to have both. Sometimes it wants to report with the meeting, sometimes it wants a formal PowerPoint presentation. However they process information, it is important to be flexible in terms of their decision-making style and their needs.

Downward Communication

Gespräch unter Nachbarn, rechts unten unleserliche Signatur. Downward communication refers not to a location in physical space, but from greater authority to lower authority.

Being skilled at downward communication does not seem to require well, that much skill. In a bureaucracy, you simply tell people what they want and they go ahead and do it. That might be true in some cases, but downward communication suffers from certain types of problems that lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding.

To give you one example, downward communication is often a one-way flow of information. The supervisor says, the subordinate listens. And since many of us do not possess stellar listening skills, much of what we hear is lost. Of course, the supervisor sometimes is not very clear and not very specific in terms of what they desire, leaving the subordinate totally confused. How many times of you heard this, ” I want you to get it done as soon as possible.”

Lateral Communication

Die geschlossene Bank. Certain environments minimize the impact of authority on communication.

Today, lateral communication can be viewed as a choice of channels between the written channel (which consists primarily of e-mail) and the verbal communication which consists primarily of face-to-face interaction, phone calls, and meetings.

An E-mail has many advantages; however, relationship building is not one of them. So people skilled at getting and sharing information from others at their peer level understand the importance of building, maintaining, and repairing relationships. And this, of course, acquires a tremendous amount of human relations skills.

Hierarchical Communication

Authority plays a big role in how organizational communication flows occurs between authority levels

There are many different types of theories describing communication within an organization. This boils down to knowing whether the group is hierarchical or not. 

For example, this article uses the assumption of bureaucracy and how that form of an organization affects information flows. Interpersonal communications inside and organizational hierarchy are subtly influenced by the perception of status and vertical relationships that tends toward dominance and submission. Although we don’t like to think about this, most of us have to submit to a dominant person called the boss. In fact, we do almost everything this person says. Sometimes, as in the case when this person’s authority is not enough to get us to obey, they may have to exercise leadership skills to persuade and motivate.

The Network

Other theories assume smaller organizational structures such as a small group or a team. Even within a team though, one also has upward, lateral, and downward communication flows between boss and subordinates (as in the case of a group) or between leaders and followers (in the case of a team).

Networks contain expertise. But unlike hierarchical communication, there is no authority.

On the other hand, horizontal relationships are those between two individuals of equal status and authority. Two vice president’s talking to each other, or two secretaries engaging in conversation are both lateral and nonhierarchical. To influence in such a situation, one cannot use authority. So horizontal interpersonal relationships are much more complicated.

The vice president who wants the help of another vice president has the same problem with the secretary seeking assistance from another secretary. Neither one can expect the other person to blindly obey, as is the case of a vertical boss-subordinate relationship. And so they must engage in different types of influence mechanisms to get the other person to act on their request.

However, there is another type of communication theory that is not based in any way on one’s status or authority. We call this the network model. In a network, people share information based on certain relationships. So a social network, such as a social media site, you exist as part of a network. Whether the network is 100 or 10,000, people follow you or read what you have to say, based on perceived value. And they really don’t give a damn about your organizational title. As you can imagine, how information flows and a hierarchy or network are quite different.

Enhancing Organizational Communication

The effectiveness of communication flows inside an organizational system depends on factors such as culture, structure, skills, trust, and so on. But to be effective at it, one must assume that all information is subject to some type of loss.

Use Redundant Channels

A quick question, “Which is more effective: written communication, verbal communication, or both?” Looking at the effectiveness of these channels, many assume that it would be written or verbal. However, studies have shown that both together are more effective than either one separately. So if you want to ensure effective communication, you must incorporate redundancies and use multiple channels to convey the same information.

Choose The Right Channel

One of the primary issues all of us face has to do with the improper selection of a channel. Classically we can send information verbally, write it down, send it electronically, or do these in combination. For example, I might choose to send a message via e-mail and then follow it up with a face-to-face conversation.

Choose the Right Medium

Unfortunately, many organizational communication issues revolve around the bad choice of media. In other words, rather than sending a tasking e-mail, I should’ve picked up the telephone and spoken to the person. Instead of having a meeting to present information, it should have put it out as an e-mail and put it on the intranet. Instead of trying to solve the problem with e-mail traffic, we should seek to get all the principals in the same room and hash things out. Of course, due to distance and time zones, it’s not always possible to use verbal channels the way one should. Still, most people would rather be told what to do, rather than receiving an impersonal and cold e-mail with the same type of information.


If you occupy a position of responsibility, one of your most important tasks will be to ensure information flows in a timely and accurate manner. As this article points out, there are many problems just with the verbal flow of information inside organizations, other problems exist in the various electronic media and written media being used. Bottom line: if you have a message to be sent, never assume it’s understood.


Moss, Stewart, and Tubbs, Sylvia (2006). Human Communication, Principles and Contexts, 11th Edition. New York: Prentice-Hall.

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