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8.5: Communication Channels

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Discuss the nature of communications in an organizational setting, including communication flows, channels, and networks.
    2. Explain barriers to communication, and discuss the most common types of barriers to group communication.

    What Is Organizational Communication?

    Clearly, the task of preparing and submitting a finished sales report doesn’t require the same kinds of communication skills as talking on the phone with a classmate. No matter what your “workstation” happens to be—whether your workplace office or your kitchen table—you’re performing the task of preparing that sales report in an organizational setting. You’re still a sender transferring information to a receiver, but the organizational context of the task requires you to consider different factors for success in communicating effectively (including barriers to success). A report, for example, must be targeted for someone in a specific position and must contain the information necessary to make a specific set of decisions (Netzley & Snow, 2002).

    Communication Flows

    Here’s another way of thinking about communication in an organizational setting. Let’s assume that you and the classmate you called on the phone are on roughly equal footing—you’re both juniors, your grades in the class are about the same, and so forth. Your phone conversation, therefore, is “lateral”: You belong to the same group (your accounting class), and your group activities take place on the same level.

    Communication may also flow laterally in organizational settings (as it does between you and your classmate), but more often it flows up or down. Take a look at Figure 8.7 “Formal Communication Flows”. If it looks familiar, that’s because we’ve borrowed it from Chapter 6 “Managing for Business Success”, where it appeared as the organization chart for the fictional company Notes-4-You. As you can see, we’ve added a few lines to show the three directions in which communications can flow in a typical organization (Greenberg & Baron, 2008):

    • As the term suggests, downward communication flows from higher organizational levels (supervisors) to lower organizational levels (subordinates).
    • Upward communication flows from lower to higher organizational levels.
    • Lateral (or horizontal) communication flows across the organization, among personnel on the same level.

    Your boss’s request for a sales report is an instance of downward communication, and when you’ve finished and submitted it, you will have completed a task of upward communication.

    Figure 8.7 Formal Communication Flows


    Advantages of Communication Flows

    Naturally, each of these different directional flows has its functions and advantages. Downward communication, for example, is appropriate for giving instructions or directions—telling people what to do. (As a goal of communication, by the way, giving orders isn’t as one-sided as it may seem. One of the things that employees—the receivers—most want to know is: What, exactly, does my job entail?) (Greenberg & Baron, 2002) Like a sales report, upward communication usually provides managers with information that they need for making decisions, but it’s also the vehicle for new ideas, suggestions, and complaints. Horizontal communication supports efforts to coordinate tasks and otherwise help people work together.

    Disadvantages of Communication Flows

    And, of course, each type of flow has its disadvantages. As information seeps downward, for instance, it tends to lose some of its original clarity and often becomes distorted or downright wrong. (This is especially true when it’s delivered orally.) In addition, unlike Donald Trump, most people who are responsible for using downward communication don’t like delivering bad news (such as “You’re fired” or, more commonly, “Your job is being phased out”); as a result, bad news—including bad news that happens to be important news—is often ignored or disguised. The same thing may happen when bad news—say, a negative status report—must be sent upward.

    Finally, while horizontal flows are valuable for promoting cooperation, they can also be used to engage in conflict—for instance, between two departments competing for the same organizational resources. The problem is especially bad when such horizontal communications breach official upward or downward lines of communication, thus bypassing managers who might be able to resolve the conflict.