Horizontal vs. vertical communication

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  • Teamwork and collaboration

If you’re like most team members working in a typical business, on any given day, you could talk to dozens of people about anything from work to pasta. Analyzing this communication is fascinating—think about the emails you respond to, the quick pings you send off, the side chats, and the in-person meetings. Think about how your style of communication changes depending on the topic of conversation, and consider how your tone might even change from person to person. 

Communication is business. It’s the backbone of our work. It’s what we spend the majority of our time doing. And we’ve come quite a way since the days of fax machines and memos. 

In many ways, we’ve solved some of the largest hurdles of communicating more quickly and increasing the rapidity of our work. But in other ways, we’ve encountered new hurdles and are still grappling with the issues of seniority that have hindered communication since hierarchical power systems were invented. In pursuit of easing some pain points in our daily communication, we’re going to dive a bit deeper into how we communicate and with whom, then provide some tips and tricks for overcoming common communication obstacles. 

We hope that shedding light on methods of communication can help you improve how you and your team connect, and maybe it will serve as inspiration to analyze what’s going well and what can be improved so that your daily communication gets a bit of a boost.

Horizontal vs. vertical communication styles

Most employees will never communicate directly with their company executives. While that does have to do with hierarchy and degrees of separation, it mostly has to do with the type of work being done. Think of it this way: If you make sandwiches for a sandwich company, you need to talk to customers, ask your manager about your work schedule, and speak regularly with the other sandwich makers. It wouldn’t be beneficial to talk to the owner of the sandwich company because he likely isn’t making sandwiches every day and he likely doesn’t have the answers to questions about your role.

However, you probably do receive communication from higher ups in your organization, which are things like business-wise announcements, special congratulations, and financial updates. 

This is where different communication styles come into play, and knowing what they are can help your communication improve.

What is horizontal communication?

Horizontal communication means communicating primarily among individuals or departments at the same hierarchical level within an organization. Unlike vertical communication, which flows up or down the organizational hierarchy, horizontal communication occurs between peers or colleagues who may work in different departments or divisions but have similar levels of authority or responsibility. This type of communication is essential for coordination, collaboration, problem-solving, and knowledge sharing across different parts of the organization. When you have team meetings, interdepartmental discussions, and emails between colleagues, they’ll likely all be with members at the same level within the organization.

Examples of horizontal communication include team meetings, Slack messages, quick huddles, and peer reviews.

Advantages of horizontal communication

Horizontal communication offers improved coordination as you synchronize activities and ensure alignment, enhanced collaboration as you share ideas and resources effectively, quick decision-making as you directly exchange information, and cross-functional understanding, which promotes organizational learning and adaptability.

Disadvantages of horizontal communication

However, horizontal communication is also often associated with a lack of formality and limited accountability. It is resource-intensive, since communicating requires time, and there is a potential for conflicts since it’s traditionally done regularly and informally. Last, horizontal communication can lead to information silos as departments or teams often overlook important information to share with others.

What is vertical communication?

Vertical communication refers to communication up and down the hierarchical structure of an organization. It involves communication between individuals or groups at different levels of authority within the organization's hierarchy.

Downward communication typically involves the transmission of instructions, policies, goals, and other directives from higher levels of management to lower-level employees. This form of communication ensures that employees understand their roles, responsibilities, and organizational objectives.

On the other hand, upward communication involves the transmission of feedback, reports, presentations, suggestions, and other information from lower-level employees to higher-level management. This allows employees to express their concerns, provide input, and share valuable insights with decision-makers. It also allows them to gain valuable buy-in from more influential stakeholders.

Vertical communication plays a crucial role in organizational functioning by facilitating the dissemination of information, fostering alignment between different levels of the organization, and enabling coordination and decision-making processes.

Examples of vertical communication include employee surveys, directives, performance feedback, policy communications, and town hall meetings.

Advantages of vertical communication 

Vertical communication offers a clear chain of command and effective decision-making. Plus, it’s traditionally associated with a strong feedback mechanism and messaging consistency.

Disadvantages of vertical communication 

Vertical communication is usually much slower than horizontal. There are often hierarhchial barriers that make it more difficult to happen, and it’s associated with a risk of distortion as information gets passed from one level to the next.

Tips for improving horizontal communication

  1. Define and set up communication channels: Detail what’s used for what, and use outlets such as team meetings, email lists, and collaboration platforms to keep the channels open.

  2. Encourage open dialogue: Improving communication starts with a better culture where everyone feels their voice and opinion are valued. Encourage active listening and provide meaningful feedback.

  3. Provide training and development: Consider teaching effective communication skills, collaboration techniques, and conflict resolution strategies to equip team members with the tools they need to communicate and collaborate more effectively with peers.

  4. Use technology: Implement communication tools and technologies, such as messaging apps, project management software, or intranet platforms to facilitate real-time communication and make sure important messages don’t get lost.

Tips for improving vertical communication

  1. Gain transparency: Make sure that information shared from upper management to lower-level employees is clear, honest, and transparent. Employees should understand the rationale behind decisions and be informed about changes that affect them.

  2. Encourage feedback: Establish formal feedback mechanisms, such as employee surveys, to gather input from employees about their experiences with vertical communication and areas for improvement.

  3. Clarify objectives: Define success so that people know what it looks like. Clearly communicate expectations, goals, and objectives to employees at all levels of the organization.

  4. Encourage two-way communication: Foster an environment where employees feel comfortable providing feedback, asking questions, and sharing ideas with their superiors. It may be a hierarchy, but everyone should still feel valued.

How Lucidspark can help improve communication

Visual collaboration is easier to understand, so it keeps everyone on the same page. Plus, our dozens of tools and features make communication easy. Gain feedback and make collaborative decisions with Visual Activities. Team Spaces double as hubs for horizontal communication. Plus, with in-app chat, simplified sticky note brainstorms, and hundreds of templates, improved collaboration is right at your fingertips. 

Learn more about how Lucidspark can ignite teamwork for your org.

Learn more about how Lucidspark can ignite teamwork for your org.

About Lucidspark

Lucidspark, a cloud-based virtual whiteboard, is a core component of Lucid Software's Visual Collaboration Suite. This cutting-edge digital canvas brings teams together to brainstorm, collaborate, and consolidate collective thinking into actionable next steps—all in real time. Lucid is proud to serve top businesses around the world, including customers such as Google, GE, and NBC Universal, and 99% of the Fortune 500. Lucid partners with industry leaders, including Google, Atlassian, and Microsoft. Since its founding, Lucid has received numerous awards for its products, business, and workplace culture. For more information, visit lucidspark.com.

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