Directions of Communication

Learning Outcomes

  • Analyze direction of communication within an organization

Now we understand what communication is, and a message is encoded by a sender, decoded by a receiver, all while navigating noise and providing feedback. Organizations communicate to ensure employees have the necessary information to do their jobs, feel engaged, and be productive.

Communication travels within an organization in three different directions, and often the channels of communication are prescribed by the direction in which the communication is flowing. Let’s take a look at the three different directions and types of communication channels used.

Vertical Communication

A diagram depicting upwards and downwards communication. The left side of the diagram shows information flowing from the executive, down to the managers, and then down to the employee workforce (showing downwards communication). The right side of the diagram shows information flowing from the employee workforce, to the managers, and then up to the executive (upwards communication).

Figure 1. Downward and upward communication

Vertical communication can be broken down into two categories: downward communication and upward communication.

Downward Communication

Downward communication is from the higher-ups of the organization to employees lower in the organizational hierarchy, in a downward direction. It might be a message from the CEO and CFO to all of their subordinates, their subordinates, and so on. It might be a sticky note on your desk from your manager. Anything that travels from a higher-ranking member or group of the organization to a lower-ranking individual is considered downward organizational communication.

Downward communication might be used to communicate new organizational strategy, highlight tasks that need to be completed, or they could even be a team meeting run by the manager of that team. Appropriate channels for these kinds of communication are verbal exchanges, minutes and agendas of meetings, memos, emails, and even Intranet news stories.

Upward Communication

Upward communication flows upward from one group to another that is on a higher level on the organizational hierarchy. Often, this type of communication provides feedback to organizational leaders about current problems, or even progress on goals.

It’s probably not surprising that “verbal exchanges” are less likely to be found as a common channel for this kind of communication. It’s certainly fairly common between managers and their direct subordinates, but less common between a line worker and the CEO. However, communication is facilitated between the front lines and senior leadership all the time. Channels for upward communication include not only a town hall forum where employees could air grievances, but also reports of financial information, project reports, and more. This kind of communication keeps managers informed about company progress and how employees feel, and it often provides managers with ideas for improvement.

Horizontal Communication

When communication takes place between people at the same level of the organization, like between two departments or between two peers, it’s called horizontal (or lateral) communication. Communication taking place between an organization and its vendors, suppliers, and clients can also be considered horizontal communication.

A diagram depicting horizontal communication; showing information flowing between individuals of equal rank.

Figure 2. Horizontal communication

Even though vertical communication is very effective, horizontal communication is still needed and encouraged, because it saves time and can be more effective—imagine if you had to talk to your supervisor every time you wanted to check-in with a coworker! Additionally, horizontal communication takes place even as vertical information is imparted: a directive from the senior team permeates through the organization, both by managers explaining the information to their subordinates and by all of those people discussing and sharing the information horizontally with their peers.

Not all organizations are set up to facilitate good horizontal communication, though. An organization with a rigid, bureaucratic structure—like a government organization—communicates everything based on chain of command, and often horizontal communication is discouraged. Peer sharing is limited. Conversely, an organic organization—which features a loose structure and decentralized decision making—would leverage and encourage horizontal communication.

Horizontal communication sounds like a very desirable feature in an organization and, used correctly,  it is. Departments and people need to talk between themselves, cutting out the “middle men” of upper management in order to get things done effectively. Unfortunately, horizontal communication can also undermine the effectiveness of downward communication, particularly when employees go around or above their superiors to get things done, or if managers find out after the fact that actions have been taken or decisions have been made without their knowledge.

Practice Question

Now that we understand the three directions in which communication can travel, let’s take a look at types of communication and how they’re employed within an organization.


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