After 15 years as a leader and communicator I find myself more and more fascinated by communication. This article describes the concept of downward communication as well as some of my experiences from it in the business world.
In most larger organizations, downward communication flows from the top of the organization to the bottom of the organization. The type of information varies, it can be orders, instructions, directives, information, requests, policies and many other things. Normally, this is done through the organizational hierarchy or chain of command, but in this digital day, it is not unusual for downward communication to skip one or several layer of the hierarchy. How communication is done often depends on what type of information we are talking about of course.
Definition of downward communication
According to Oxfordreference.com, downward communication can be defined as “Message sending, and information flow, within organizational hierarchies from superiors to subordinates, often taking highly directive forms such as instructions and orders. Such communication reinforces the hierarchical nature of organizations. It is characteristic of an organizational structure termed ‘mechanistic’, in which roles are clearly defined.“
I think most organizations have some sort of hierarchy, without necessarily having to be labelled “mechanistic”, but that´s another story. I would rather say that downward communication is a characteristic in the bureaucratic leadership style.
What is downward communication?
Downward communication is sending information downwards through an organizational hierarchy from leaders to followers. It is characteristic for organizations were hierarchies are strictly followed, often also for upward communication. It can often lead to information loss as each layer forwards the message, but it is often a necessity in large organizations.
How does downward communication work?
Downward communication can be passed a long in many ways of course, especially these days. It can be verbal communication, e-mails, presentations, videos or another form.
When an organization grows it will eventually be impossible for the top leader to communicate in a good, effective and frequent way with the entire organization. Imagine a company with 200 employees in 3 different locations – the CEO cannot and is not expected to communicate individually with each and everyone of the employees in such a situation. Instead, the organization structure is normally used.
Imagine this two hundred employee company is divided into the following departments: Sales, Warehousing, Purchasing and Administration. In order to pass a message to everybody in the company, the CEO could utilize traditional downward communication and inform the heads of these departments. These department heads would then communicate this to their direct reporting mid level managers, who in the end will inform the employees furthest down in the organizational hierarchy. It really is as simple as that.
What are the problems with downward communication?
There are several problems with downward communication, and I have personally experienced many of them.
- Information loss and changed content: This is just like the old kids’ game.. If the CEO in our example informs the department heads, they will in turn slightly adapt the message either willingly or unwillingly when they pass it on to their mid level managers. Once, the message reaches the employee furthest down, some information might be lacking or have even been changed on the way.
- Lack of feedback: As a leader, it is imperative to understand how information was received, the reaction on it, feedback, willingness to go through with potential instructions etc. This is lost in downward communication to a high degree. The different layers of management could of course feedback this information upwards, but it will never be the same as for the top leader him or herself to really understand how the information landed.
- Extension of the communication timeline: The steps described above take time. Sometimes even a long time. Imagine the CEO communicating in a management team meeting. The next level might get the information the week after. They in turn might wait for different already agreed upon departmental meetings and before you know it, there will be several weeks until the message has reached everybody
- Unknown impact: It is literally impossible for the top leader to assess whether the lower layers chose to ignore the information or accept a diluted or altered version of the message. The leader can not assume when or if truly everyone has been reached by the information.
How to avoid the disadvantages of downward communication?
So, how can you as a communicator and as a leader be able to mitigate some of these disadvantages? By information the managers and leaders that feedback on information reception is crucial, you can a better understanding of the impact of the information. Furthermore, you can inform through multiple channels, such as letters, emails, posters on the wall etc. and most of all you can ensure repetition of the message. Whether this is doable or needed often depends on what is being communicated of course. If the information is truly important, you might consider some sort of survey in the end to be able to gauge how “sticky” the information and communication method were.
In my case, I always try to couple important downward messaging with personally communicating in town hall meetings, online meetings or email. I do this on top of the normal “chain of command” type information flow which is classic downward communication. If this is done, we are no longer talking of traditional downward communication since several channels and methods are used.
Furthermore, if you as a top leader solely base your communication flow on downward communication through several layers there will be other disadvantages. People will eventually start to wonder where you are, they will feel unimportant etc. You will also be detached from very important feedback through the layers, so please ensure you consider personal involvement when the time is right, and the importance is high enough.
Downward communication – bad example
I have seen cases where the disadvantages of downward communication have gone completely over the top. I have also experienced the milder and, I’m sorry to say, pretty normal level of problems of downward communication with gaps in information, misunderstanding in buy-in and difference in expectation on execution. Let me describe a scenario when things have gone really wrong..
Horrible side effects in this case of downward communication
This example is based on real events, but some flavor had been added in order to provide an example where things really go wrong.
An organization I was in contact with made several big changes initiated from the top most level of the company several years ago. This was informed in a very old fashioned downward and very directive communication way, essentially “my way or the highway” type approach. The second layer of management was simply told that this is how it is going to be, and if you do not like it, we look forward to seeing your resignation as soon as possible.
What did this disadvantageous downward communication lead to?
Since a dialogue was obviously out of the question, the second layer management did exactly what they were told, nothing more, nothing less. Furthermore, some required changes did not have a specific time limit on them, so local management decided to execute at a later stage. In fact, a much, much later stage.
This went so bad, that in each subsequent layer of communication, additional disbelief and an agenda of resistance got further cemented by the communicating manager on that level. After a while, a wide gap had been created. When information started coming from the top level to a wide audience, including the very bottom levels of the hierarchy, there was a substantial gap in motivation, instruction and information compared to what everybody’s direct manager had told them.
Besides not really being able to execute, the end result in this situation was that the top level management was totally convinced that execution was on-going, when in fact it had hardly started on most of the action items. It took many months to realize and understand this gap in knowledge, and even longer to start mitigating the problem and move forward. In fact, about a year later, most of the changes were rolled back and would you believe it – the roll back actions were executed with incredible speed and decisiveness.
In this case, the communication was one problem of many. The changes ordered and the method of deployment were highly disliked by a vast majority of this organization. The strict downward communication sadly made it impossible to understand and mitigate this major difference between the attitudes of the top management and most of the organization.
Do you have examples of how downward communication works? Any stories of when it has worked good or bad for you? Please share in the comment section.
If you are interested in how to communicate as a leader, check out this blog post on Leadership Posture.