Communicating up, down and sideways

I don’t think it’s possible to interview a disgruntled, demotivated or otherwise upset employee at any organization without hearing the following sentiment: We have poor communication here. If you’ve ever experienced what it’s like to suffer through poor communication from a leader, you know that many things can occur: mistakes, bottlenecks, disappointment and even costly business mishaps. This makes things so difficult on every level and unfortunately, not enough leaders understand when they’re getting on their own way. So what can we do if we’re not in the position to say “hey, everyone, our communication skills suck!”? Well, we can set an example and make change around us.

As soon as your business has more than about five employees you should think about the best way to manage communication in all directions. If you are all sitting at one bank of desks or in one workshop, you may not think it necessary, but things can go wrong with communication surprisingly often, believe me, even when everyone is working in the same room. By the way: The terms up, down and sideways used here are not intended to imply a rigid hierarchy with employees deferentially doffing their caps to you, but merely as directional arrows in the flow of communication!

Communicating up: From employees to you

Even if you are very approachable and open to being interrupted, employees will sometimes need to tell you confidential information or ask you questions that they don’t want everyone to hear. Make it a normal thing to meet your employees on a one to one basis, even if it is for 10 minutes once a week. If it is not practical to regularly meet all your employees individually, give them a channel of communication they can use, such as:

  • A regular time slot or lunch hour when you are always available in a meeting room
  • Access to a computer at work to send you an email
  • An ‘open door’ policy where any employee can come to see you any time
  • Your work mobile number
  • An old fashioned ‘suggestion box’ where employees can put comments or raise questions
  • A survey or online ‘feedback’

Listening is a very important part of great communication, so if you give employees the channel to communicate with you, make sure that you also actually listen to what they have to say.

Communicating down: From you to employees

There should be two kinds of communication flowing from you to employees:

  • The information that applies to the whole team
  • The information that is specific to individual employees

When you are considering the best method for these communications, as well as the audience, you should take into account:

  • Your statutory obligations as an employer
  • Whether you need a written record of the communication
  • The confidentiality of the information, in particular any Data Protection issues
  • Your external reputation
  • Any collective agreements you have with employee representatives


Video: Communicating up, down and sideways


Communicating sideways: or Across the team

Even a small team needs to pay attention to communication, so that people have the information they need to make decisions, solve problems and deliver results. The role of the team leader in sideways communication is to enable it by:

  • Setting up regular team meetings and ensuring that people share information
  • Encouraging people to talk to each other regularly between meetings
  • Ensuring that everyone in the team has access to the information they need from the team leader
  • Providing guidance about when issues should be escalated

No matter whether you sit in a cubicle or a corner office, you can be the change you wish to see and influence those above, below and beside you on the organizational chart. When done right, communication helps keep everyone aligned on a common purpose, establish clear expectations, and engage employees. It enables you to track progress, reinforce positive performance, and realign and improve unsatisfactory performance. In fact, getting good at defining winning behaviors and constantly aligning everyone to them (through ongoing communication) is what separates the winners from everyone else playing catch-up in today’s world.

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