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Horizontal communication vs vertical communication

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

February 18, 2021

Did you know that lettuce is a whopping 96% water? It’s a fact that blows most people’s minds when you share it. Here are some more eye-opening tidbits according to Studies from McKinsey Global Institute, International Data Corporation, and the Journal of Communication:

  • The average employee spends 28% of each workday reading and responding to emails.
  • Leaders spend 80% of their day communicating with others.
  • The typical Fortune 500 CEO spends 26% of their day on the phone.
  • For the average senior manager, 50% of the workday is dedicated to meetings.

Communication takes up a huge chunk of the workday. You’ve got your emails and meetings, your team chats, and notes left on group platforms. Bosses send messages to the whole company, plus there are wikis and portals where everyone leaves comments and messages.

Organizational communication is about the structures in place that define how communication works across a company, and it plays a key part in how successful your organization is. Let’s take a closer look at what it is.

What’s the cost of bad communication

Short answer? A lot. It’s not just about having to waste 20 minutes explaining an email (although since we’re on the topic — according to one study on communication challenges in SMBs, employees spend an average of 17 hours per week clarifying communication). A communication breakdown can be far more insidious.

Not aligning employees with core values could lead to workplace harassment or behavior that damages the company’s reputation. At its worst, poor communication can lead to a catastrophic mistake that seriously impacts the organization’s future.

Different types of organizational communication

Horizontal communication

Also known as ‘lateral communication,’ horizontal communication is sharing information across all organizational levels rather than just certain pieces trickling down from the top. The goal here is to promote a feeling of unity and collaboration. For that reason, it often goes hand-in-hand with a bottom-up leadership style.

It’s becoming more popular in businesses today, especially creative ones. It’ll help everyone feel equally empowered to share their ideas and shape the company.

Why is horizontal communication becoming more popular?

Traditionally, big companies have hierarchical structures that focus on vertical communication. But communication methods and channels have changed massively over the past 50 years, with email, chat apps, mobile, and video conferencing transforming the way we all talk to one another.

Now, anyone can talk to and share information with anyone in seconds. This has naturally made organizational communication a little more horizontal in practice by default, even within a vertical communication structure.

Advantages of horizontal communication

  • Promotes teamwork and a company-wide sense of unity
  • Decreases misunderstandings because the same information is shared with everyone
  • Improves problem-solving skills and boosts creativity
  • Makes it easier to coordinate teams and tasks
  • Helps employees feel empowered
  • Boosts transparency

Disadvantages of horizontal communication

  • It can be chaotic if not carefully managed
  • It can be time-consuming
  • There can be a conflict between employees due to a loosely-defined hierarchical structure

Vertical communication

Vertical communication is sharing information hierarchically — from top to bottom or bottom to top.

We’re probably all most familiar with this type of communication: Senior management sharing information like budgets, objectives, feedback, and goals with middle managers, who then share this with their teams. Decisions are made at the top, then the results and outcomes are filtered down.

When information flows the other way, a team works together on a project, then reports back to the manager, sharing progress, difficulties, and improvements. The manager passes this information on to the people at the top. They then use this to make decisions, and the information filters back down again.

Advantages of vertical communication

  • Communication channels are well-defined and strong
  • It helps establish authority and accountability
  • Decisions are often reached faster because there’s less discussion involved
  • Employees know who to contact to discuss grievances

Disadvantages of vertical communication

  • Employees can feel disempowered and be reluctant to speak up
  • Lower-level employees may feel neglected
  • A select few gatekeeping information damages transparency
  • Creative ideas may go unspoken or not reach decision-makers
  • There may be delays between something happening and it reaching the right person
  • Messages may become distorted as they filter through the layers

Should you choose horizontal or vertical communication?

Knowing your business is key to choosing a communication channel that works for you.

Every business is different, and just because a lot of cool startups are embracing horizontal communication structures, it doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for your business.

Choose a route that works with your values, not against them. If your business values structure and authority, vertical will probably feel like a more natural choice. If you’re a small startup or a business focusing on transparency, creativity, and shared leadership, then a horizontal communication style might be just the ticket. Or, instead, perhaps, like many businesses, you can embrace a blend of both.

Final thoughts

Communication takes up a huge chunk of the working day and shapes the very future of your business, so it pays to get it right. With more and more people working from home (and the challenges remote working brings), it’s increasingly important to make sure everyone in the business knows how, when, and why they should communicate. Having a good range of channels will help create a cohesive and flexible environment for employees to collaborate across the entire organization — whether you’re strictly vertical or embracing a flatter, more collaborative way of sharing information.



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