Organizational communication

Analysis of various forms of communication, both formal and informal

April 2020 —  There are two types of communication channels in organizations: formal and informal. These will be examined in more detail.

Formal Communication

Formal communication has been put in place by society or the organization to serve a variety of purposes. It is a managed format.

It is important to understand how communication is identified in an organization and whether it is effective or ineffective. Communication can be very effective in one tier and yet ineffective in another. When moving from tier to tier in an organization, it is important to determine the appropriate match between the content of a message and the channel used to communicate the message.

Formal communication channels are up, down, horizontal, and external in companies. Informal communication channels do not follow any chain of command or structure.

Organizational behavior authorities Robert Kreitner and Angelo Kinicki break communication into two vertical communication elements: upward and downward.

Upward Communication

Upward communication is when individuals send a message to someone higher than their own organizational level. These messages might involve:

  • Challenges with coworkers
  • Concerns about organizational policies/practices
  • Communication about results that have or have not been achieved

Many managers encourage employees to communicate upward in hopes of fostering intrinsic motivation and empowerment in workers.

Downward Communication

Downward communication occurs when someone in a higher organizational position sends information to someone in a lower role. This information might include:

  • Organizational goals, mission, and vision
  • Job descriptions and responsibilities
  • Policies and procedures
  • Performance feedback

Surveys repeatedly highlight the need for upper management to communicate effectively through the downward communication channel as the lack of this continues to be the top-ranked job frustration for employees. To overcome challenges related to poor downward communications, some organizations hold town hall meetings as a central form of instant communication to the entire organization. This approach ensures that the message is heard by all staff at the same time and there is ample time for questioning. Some organizations hold monthly or yearly symposiums and roundtable discussions to share relevant organizational information.

Horizontal communication

Horizontal communication flows between coworkers and departments. Its main purpose is coordination. This type of communication is facilitated by team dynamics, project meetings, committees, and structures that “get the work done.” Elements that impede this type of communication include:

  • Specialization of skills, resulting in people working alone
  • Competition, which reduces information sharing
  • Creation of a culture that impedes collaboration and cooperation

External communication is a two-way flow between an organization and outside vendors, suppliers, and procurement list specialists. Many organizations have specialized departments and procedure managers that do nothing but handle external communication. Some organizations strictly ban internal employees from interacting and communicating with external vendors without negative consequences. This is often to protect the organization’s integrity, trade secrets, and strategies.

Informal Communication

Informal communication in organizations is a type of communication that follows no boundaries or patterns. Examples of this type of communications include the grapevine or “management by walking around.” In some cultures, informal communication is stronger than formal communication.

Grapevine/Liaison Communication

The grapevine is probably the most widely used unofficial form of communication. News travels quickly through this medium. It follows no rules, has no limits, and is typically driven by staff versus management. Social networking has taken this type of communication to another level in recent years. People who consistently pass along information using the grapevine are often referred to as liaison individuals or gossips.

The grapevine can function as an early warning sign that organizational changes are occurring, and therefore the culture may be shifting. It also can function as a cohesive mechanism for employees to bond and adjust to change prior to its formal announcement by upper management.

The grapevine as a communication channel has several important elements:

  • It is faster than formal channels
  • It is about 75 percent accurate
  • People rely on it when they are insecure or are facing organizational changes
  • Employees use the grapevine to acquire most of their job information

It is important that managers constantly monitor gossip and influence the grapevine rather than try to destroy or forbid it.

Management by Walking Around Communication

Management by walking around (MBWA) is a concept that has been discussed in management circles since the early 1950s and early union days when managers were encouraged to walk around making sure the workers were performing their tasks. Taken to the more modern form, MBWA is an excellent, positive approach to give managers time to communicate with their coworkers and team members. This communication time builds relationships and can enhance trust and respect among the team. It is considered the most effective way to communicate with employees. Employees enjoy having their managers sit down at their desks and chat a bit about work, leisure, and organizational dynamics.

Some useful tips for MBWA include:

  • Dedicate a certain amount of time each week for MBWA
  • Do not talk on your cell phone
  • Focus on the employees
  • Use active and reflective listening skills
  • Encourage two-way communication with the employees
  • Take a notepad and take notes
  • Follow up when necessary
  • Thank individuals for their time and feedback

This article is adapted from BOMI International’s Managing the Organization course, part of the RPA, FMA, and SMA designation programs. More information regarding this course or the BOMI-HP™ credential is available by calling 1-800-235-2664. Visit BOMI International’s website,