Pick an unfamiliar organization, guess its top challenge. For good odds, guess organizational communication. What to do? Here's what the research says...
Think like an organizational scientist—Communication occurs in many layers.
Organizational communication is "the process of stimulating meaning in the minds of others, verbally or otherwise, in a formal organization."
What we communicate—the most surface-level meaning—is only a small portion of the total information in organizational communication. How we say, write, react, respond, or ignore has a big impact. That impact occurs in two parts - first, in the signals we transmit, and second, in the meaning receivers assign.
In groups, what causes big mistakes? Often the answer is poor communication. Strong organizational performance depends on important information making its way to the right people at the right time.18,25
Ever thought about organizations as communication, not just containing communication? Here's a thought-provoking whiteboard presentation by University of Colorado Boulder's Dr. Matt Koschmann:
Consider the direction of communication, and how information is crossing levels.
Three organizational communication paths:
Downward Communication. Information flows from higher authority to lower authority in the organization. For example: performance feedback and guidance from a supervisor, information on new policies and goals.
Upward Communication. Subordinates share information with supervisors. For example: raising a concern about ability to meet a deadline, suggesting an improvement idea.
Horizontal Communication. Coworkers at the same level share information. For example: providing data that feeds a downstream task, collaborating on a cross-functional project.
We can examine the "climate for communication" in an organization. All three directions contribute to a positive communication climate.
Is information moving swiftly and effectively in all directions—downward, upward, and horizontally?
How effective is the information movement in motivating organizational action?
How healthy are employee attitudes toward communication?
Not all communication levels are equally vital, though. Outcomes like how strongly people identify with the organization depend more on satisfaction with communication with top management than communication among immediate coworkers2,5,14.
There is a communication "sweet spot."
Communication can solve problems, but communication can cause problems too.
The amount of time business leaders report spending in meetings has been increasing, and the potential for ‘over-meeting’ is real.
When tasks require teamwork and meetings use time effectively, people get more enjoyment from meetings and from their jobs overall. However, spending too much time in perfunctory meetings is a sign of poor organization, and diverts people from making tangible progress.
Call meetings on purpose and use them wisely6,13,20,26.
Open communication in employee - supervisor relationships matters.
Employee-supervisor communication openness goes hand-in-hand with stronger:
Individual work performance
Organizational work performance
Satisfaction with the company
Satisfaction with performance appraisals
Satisfaction with the supervisory relationship
Openness tends to be reciprocal—seeing higher levels of openness in one member of a relationship, you'll likely see higher levels of openness in the other. When an employee and supervisor have similar openness levels, positive effects on satisfaction are greatest.
Additionally, employee-supervisor relationship quality links to positive upward communication climate, satisfaction with corporate communication, and satisfaction with horizontal communication with coworkers3,10,15,17,27,.
Trust and transparency are important for open communication.
Research supports what we innately know about the value of trust. Organizational communication provides information that sets expectations or beliefs about how the organization and its members will act.
Trust is relevant to communication within the organization, between organizations, and between an organization and clients or customers.
Organizations are trustworthy when people perceive:
Integrity - members of the organization will follow through on stated promises
Competence - the organization has the ability to deliver outcomes
Benevolence - caring for others beyond selfish motives
Research also confirms important boundary conditions that heighten the impact of trust. First, when trust diminishes, rebuilding it is challenging. Second, when uncertainty increases (e.g., during an economic downturn threatening job security), trust becomes more important.
What about transparency? Transparency describes freely flowing information among stakeholders. Since technology and social media have made keeping organizational secrets much harder, transparency has become more important in recent years. We perceive information as transparent when it is:
Beware conditions that impede honest upward communication.
Upward communication moves information from people lower in the organizational hierarchy to people of higher authority. Traditional organizational ideology didn’t value upward communication much, but modern perspectives recognize the importance of “bottom-up” organizational learning.
What inhibits or distorts upward communication? Lack of trust in a supervisor can inhibit upward communication. Low job security, low job satisfaction, and low team performance are all conditions that increase propensity to distort upward communication.
Again, remember that research reminds us that the best organizational communication is a two-way street. To promote honest upward communication, focus leaders and managers on inviting it. Research supports that when people see supervisors, managers, and leaders as approachable and responsive, the likelihood of voicing concerns and advocating important changes rises7,19,22.
Negative information avoidance distorts honest upward communication.
People at lower levels in an organization often have access to important information that leaders do not. But there is often a reluctance to share “bad news.” Most commonly, employees report discomfort raising topics like the poor performance or competence of a colleague or superior, and problems related to organizational processes.
The human tendency to tell people only what they want to hear arises because: (1) we want to avoid retaliation (shooting the messenger), and/or (2) we don’t believe the receiver will act on contrary information. Research affirms that managers tend to view negative feedback from subordinates as less accurate and more threatening than negative feedback from superiors.
To encourage transparency, create a culture of honesty. Encourage and reward people who express unpopular but necessary viewpoints, admit mistakes, and show willingness to have tough conversations12,16.
Don’t forget about horizontal communication.
Horizontal communication—between people at the same hierarchical level—is the most common form of communication in organizations.
Horizontal communication links to:
developing communication skills
identifying with a professional role
forming important social ties
creating organizational learning
improving organizational cohesion
Whereas satisfaction with vertical communication links to stronger organizational identification, satisfaction with horizontal communication links to stronger identification with one’s profession.
Horizontal communication is important for organizational performance. Better communication between different functions or departments enhances new product development efforts2,8,15,18.
What do people believe? Some beliefs discourage trust and open communication.
Beliefs that hinder organizational communication:
“Having exclusive access to information is the source of my power.”
“Others wouldn’t know what to do with this information anyway.”
“Only we as managers know what is best; employees are fundamentally selfish and lazy.”
“Our unity and lack of disagreement mean strong organizational health.”
Replacing communication-blocking beliefs with communication-supportive beliefs increases open communication9,11,16,21.
Bartels, J., Peters, O., de Jong, M., Pruyn, A., & van der Molen, M. (2010). Horizontal and vertical communication as determinants of professional and organisational identification. Personnel Review, 39(2), 210–226. https://doi.org/10.1108/00483481011017426
Burke, R. J., & Wilcox, D. S. (1969). Effects of different patterns and degrees of openness in superior-subordinate communication on subordinate job satisfaction. Academy of Management Journal, 12(3), 319–326. https://doi.org/10.2307/255179
Korsgaard, M. A., Roberson, L., & Rymph, R. D. (1998). What motivates fairness? The role of subordinate assertive behavior on manager’s interactional fairness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83(5), 731–744. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.83.5.731
Milliken, F. J., Morrison, E. W., & Hewlin, P. F. (2003). An exploratory study of employee silence: Issues that employees don’t communicate upward and why*. Journal of Management Studies, 40(6), 1453–1476. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-6486.00387
Mosvick, R. K., & Nelson, R. B. (1996). We’ve got to start meeting like this: A guide to successful meeting management (2nd Revised edition). Park Avenue Productions.
Mount, D. J., & Back, K.-J. (1999). A factor-analytic study of communication satisfaction in the lodging industry. Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research, 23(4), 401–418. https://doi.org/10.1177/109634809902300405
Mueller, B. H., & Lee, J. (2002). Leader-member exchange and organizational communication satisfaction in multiple contexts. Journal of Business Communication, 39(2), 220–244. https://doi.org/10.1177/002194360203900204
Roberts, K. H., & O’Reilly, C. A. (1974). Failures in upward communication in organizations: Three possible culprits. Academy of Management Journal, 17(2), 205–215. https://doi.org/10.2307/254974
Rogelberg, S. G., Leach, D. J., Warr, P. B., & Burnfield, J. L. (2006). “Not another meeting!” Are meeting time demands related to employee well-being? Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(1), 83–96. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.91.1.83
Saunders, D. M., Sheppard, B. H., Knight, V., & Roth, J. (1992). Employee voice to supervisors. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, 5(3), 241–259. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01385051
Schnackenberg, A. K., & Tomlinson, E. C. (2016). Organizational transparency: A new perspective on managing trust in organization-stakeholder relationships. Journal of Management, 42(7), 1784–1810. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206314525202