The 4 Directions of Organizational Communication

Have you ever played the telephone game? It’s that game where a group of people form a line and the first person whispers a message to the person next to them. Then that person whispers the same message to the person next to them and so on until, finally, the last person in the line repeats the message out loud. The final version of the message is never exactly the same as the original. In fact, it is often very different, even the opposite because someone left out a single word for example. The telephone game illustrates the challenges of communication between multiple people. Most organizations have more than two people who are supposed to be moving in the same direction. What if organizational communication happened like the telephone game?

This month we’re talking about organizational communication. Last week I wrote about “The 5 W’s of Organizations Communication” (they’re not the same 5 W’s you may be thinking of). That post was about the different components of a communication from the originator to the message itself and about the importance of feedback.

Another helpful consideration when trying to understand organizational communication is the direction in which the communication is flowing. By direction I mean along the organizational chart. Certain types of communication with different purposes flow in different directions. Understanding the various types of communication associated with each direction can be helpful in both forming and interpreting messages.

We usually think of 4 possible directions along the organizational chart for communication to flow, down, up, lateral, and diagonal.

Down

This communication is coming from the “boss” (someone above in the org chart) down to everyone else. Its purpose is usually informative or directive. It can come in any of the modes (written, verbal, memo, speech, etc). Often downward communication includes policies, rules and regulations, organizational announcements, instructions and the like.

Up

Upward flow is communication that is coming from someone below in the org chart. Its purpose is usually informative or suggestive. This communication can also come in any of the modes though speeches are not usually recommended. Upward communication often includes feedback on how things are going on the front lines, requests, or complaints.

Lateral

Lateral flow is communication among peers in the organization. Its purpose is usually collaborative. This communication can come in any of the modes. One popular mode is an interdisciplinary team meeting. Lateral communication often includes discussion of issues, resolving problems, and sharing information.

Diagonal

Diagonal communication is a bit less intuitive than the others. We expect upward and downward and even lateral communication. Diagonal flow is communication from the top of one discipline to a lower part of another and vice versa. Its purpose is usually educational. For example, let’s say the training department is developing a training video on a certain part of the operational process. A leader from training will probably reach out to a front line worker to learn about the key tasks of the job.

So What?

Imagine there is a certain task that should be done by Friday. How you formulate a message about that will depend on which direction the communication will flow. If you’re communicating up to your boss or even laterally to peers, the message will most likely take the form of a reminder, a “follow up,” or a suggestion. On the other hand, if you’re communicating down the organization, you might structure it as a directive.

In the same way, when you receive a message, the direction its flowing to you will help you interpret its intent. Is your boss directing you to complete the task by Friday? Is a colleague reminding you that your part of the project is due Friday? Or, is your employee following up on the commitment you made to respond by Friday?

In one sense, the directional flow of communication is a more detailed look at the Who and the to Whom from last week. In any case, the better you understand how organizational communication works, the more likely you’ll be an influence toward improving communication in your organization.

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