Formal / Informal Communication Channels
by Laurie Wilhelm
Communication is the sharing of information for a variety of purposes including informing, persuading, motivating or influencing. There are two general ways of delivering the information: formal and informal communication channels.
Formal Communication in the Workplace
Formal communication is organized and managed information that is shared with relevant individuals in order to secure coordinated action throughout the organization. Formal communication channels are based on an individual’s role in the organization and distributed in an organized way according to the established chain in organizational charts.
Typically, formal communication flows “downward” from executives to directors to managers to staff regarding company direction and instruction and “upward” from staff to managers to directors to executives in the form of data and reports. The communication flowing through these channels is specific to the jobs and departments.
Such formal communication is well established and planned. For example, reports and data from staff are organized are generally submitted in prescribed templates and according to a set schedule. Communication focused on a company’s strategy and direction, which originates from company executives, is funnelled through the organizational chart and changed in such a way to be relevant to each department and manager. What starts out as “high-level” communication on corporate strategy needs to be thought out through planning sessions so that the communication provides direction and is actionable for the individuals who implement the tasks of the strategy. The better the communication the better employees and staff will understand what is expected and required of them.
Informal Communication in the Workplace
On the other hand, informal communication in the workplace satisfies a variety of needs, particularly social and emotional, and are not based on the positions individuals occupy within the organizations. As a result, the communication is not managed or planned in any organized fashion. It’s more relaxed, casual and tends to be spread by word-of-mouth quickly throughout a department or organization because it’s not restricted to approvals and an established path of distribution.
Probably the most common term used for the informal communication in the workplace is “grapevine” and this communication that is sent through the organizational grapevine is often considered gossip or rumour. While grapevine communication can spread information quickly and can easily cross established organizational boundaries, the information it carries can be changed through the deletion or exaggeration crucial details thus causing the information inaccurate – even if it’s based on truth.
The use of the organizational grapevine as an informal communication channel often results when employees feel threatened, vulnerable, or when the organization is experiencing change and when communication from management is restricted and not forthcoming.
When used with thought and planning, however, there are several advantages of grapevine communication. It can
- spread information quickly throughout an organization
- serve a social purpose
- reduce stress and anxiety
- can be used to identify problems or lack of satisfaction in the workplace
While the organizational grapevine can never be eliminated, even if there are several advantages of grapevine communication, it can be reduced by removing the need for information. Managing the grapevine can be partly achieved by providing information through good, effective communication such as:
- supplying sufficient information through the formal communication channel about the concerns that are of importance to employees and staff
- present as much factual information as possible as soon as it is obtained
- keep information coming on a regular basis especially during times of change when the employees are stressed and wondering what’s going on. Daily communication with them will reduce the pressure of uncertainty.
- open the lines of the formal communication channels to receive feedback and concerns. Respond to these as quickly as possible. If concerns are submitted from staff and no response is given by management, rumours through grapevine communication will begin to fill in the communication gap which was created by management.
Formal / informal communication channels exist in every organization. Formal communication requires thought and planning prior to distribution; informal communication, however, usually succeeds on its own mostly because of the very effective grapevine. While there are several advantages of grapevine communication, managing the grapevine also requires thought and planning. Even so, it’s very difficult to formalize informal communication, therefore, the best way to cut the grapevine is to provide accurate, respectful and timely formal communication.