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By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Public University
There are several interpretations of the term organizational communication. Pennsylvania professional development company Shapiro Communications defines organizational communication as the way in which people within an organization interact and communicate with one another to accomplish the goals of the mission statement.
Common Uses of Informal Communication in Organizations
Organizational communication is verbal and non-verbal in nature; it can be effective or ineffective. One of the ways people communicate is by informal means.
Informal communication is any communication within an organization that is not directives, memos, formal meetings, conferences and other formal office instructions. To be an effective part of the organization, informal communication must be free to travel up and down the command chain unobstructed. If an organization’s leaders do not receive feedback on an initiative, for example, will they be able to gauge its acceptance by the rank-and-file and develop metrics to interpret its effectiveness?
Informal communication is useful as feedback about a process, product or strategy. One advantage of informal communication, in addition to its potential to create synergy, is that it facilitates bonding among individuals.
Informal communication can also provide additional pertinent information when official communication on a topic becomes vague or confusing. However, when informal communication is merely petty gossip, it is useless.
Everyone gossips from time to time, but that should not be encouraged. Supervisors who keep their ears open can learn a great deal about office morale simply by occasionally walking through work areas. Informal communication might also be called “grapevine communication,” a way to bypass formal communication chains.
Separating fact from gossip can be tricky. For one reason, gossip is typically oral in nature and the meaning and intent of the conversation could be lost if it is not written down after the oral exchange.
There are pros and cons to informal lines of communication, so managers and others in supervisory positions should learn how to effectively leverage those informal exchanges as part of a communications plan.
Formal Communication in Organizations
According to education professor Fred C. Lunenburg of Sam Houston State University, formal communication moves in all directions and can serve many functions. It can take a variety of forms – everything from corporate plans, policies, procedures, meetings, briefings and face-to-face encounters.
Think of formal and informal communications as two halves of a whole. Truly excellent organizational communication is a holistic affair.
Many Organizations Lack High-Quality Communicators
However, it is surprising how many poor communicators there are in American organizations today, despite the many opportunities to improve. One example is Roger Goodell of the NFL who is known for reading from a script, which makes his communications seem insincere. Another poor communicator is Jill Abramson, formerly of The New York Times, who is rough “off the course” despite her literary skills.
Organizations wanting a successful future should emphasize the need for excellent organizational communication by offering training opportunities, both internally and externally. It is important not to keep information secret unless absolutely necessary, since this practice erodes employee morale. Withholding information simply causes the rumor mill to work overtime. It is simpler and less destructive to just tell it like it is.
Managers Need to Improve Communication with Their Employees
As the Cleverism website explains, Management by Walking Around (MBWA) is not a new concept. Although the modern idea of MBWA was started by the Hewlett-Packard Company and became popular in the 1980s, this management style certainly did not begin then; managers and bosses have been using this technique for centuries.
Managers must get out of their safe offices and walk around their areas of responsibility. They need to talk to employees in an informal, nonjudgmental way without official consequences to the employee.
During these brief discussions, managers should take the time to mention organizational values and focus. They need to be supportive and understanding of the workforce and its legitimate issues.
Managers should really listen to what employees are telling them. If a problem can be solved on the spot, they need to do it!
Employees want to know that management sees them as real people with real problems and wants them to succeed in their careers. Given a chance, most people react well to positive reinforcement.
Over time, MBWA could create positive, informal organizational communication networks that embrace corporate values and visions. Some workers might complain that this process is a waste of time, but I and others have used it effectively.
Introverted Leaders May Need Interpreters for Their Organizational Communication
There are many kinds of leaders, including those who are introverts by nature. Sometimes, they are labeled as “detached.” Examples of successful introverts include General Douglas MacArthur and billionaires Warren Buffet and Bill Gates.
In the military, this trait is sometimes associated with a difficult to quantify “command presence.” For the aloof leader to succeed, he or she must possess a high level of competence that is respected by everyone.
Also, the wise leader recognizes his or her leadership type and takes pains to select subordinates who can act as interpreters. The second-in-command should be selected for both competency and an outgoing, agreeable personality.
Personable Leader Need to be Competent Leaders and Communicators
There are many examples of personable leaders throughout history, including Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These men had the unique ability to feel comfortable with people from all walks of life and to make other people feel comfortable as well. They also demonstrated high levels of professional competency and well-developed communication skills.
Another term associated with the personable leader is “engaging.” Some people associate this trait with personal charisma. However, a person can be charismatic and also incompetent. Make sure you can recognize the difference.
If a leader becomes too familiar with subordinates, he or she may lose their respect. Each person is different and must gauge that point where familiarity ends and formal command and control takes precedence.
Bilingual Communication Offers Increased Job Opportunities
More than 40 years ago, being bilingual was an asset but by no means critical in government and corporate circles. Today, two factors have changed that. For one, U.S. demographics have shifted to a more multi-cultural population. A recent Pew Research report found that five percent of the U.S. population was foreign-born in 1965. Today, that percentage is almost at a historical high of 14 percent.
Second, business is more global and connected today than ever. A 2017 New American Economy report determined that the demand for both skilled and unskilled bilingual workers in the U.S. had doubled in five years. The report shows that “employers increasingly desire workers who speak multiple languages, particularly in industries that provide services involving a high degree of human interaction. Bank of America, H&R Block and Humana were among the top firms seeking bilingual workers, based on the share of online job listings posted in 2015.”
The fields of law enforcement and defense contracting are especially ripe for bilingual positions. People from many cultures live all over the United States, from farm workers in the South to corporate executives in major cities.
Spanish speakers are the most common, but there are many other workers who speak more than one language. For two otherwise equally well-trained and qualified applicants, the one who is fluent in Spanish may be the applicant who gets the job.
Since the end of the Cold War, the numbers of U.S. defense contracting personnel at home and abroad has spiraled. Places like the new NATO countries of Eastern Europe, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen are just a few contracting opportunities for applicants who can speak official languages and local dialects. The Department of Defense maintains a vigorous language program at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) in Monterey, California.
Graduates are taking advantage of the language skills they learned there to find employment after their military service. These opportunities will continue to expand.
About the Author
Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He is an Assistant Editor for the International Journal of Risk and Contingency Management (IJRCM). He holds a B.A. in law enforcement from Marshall University, an M.A. in military history from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University. Jeffrey is also a published author, a former New York deputy sheriff and a retired Army officer, having served over 20 years in the U.S. Army. He and his wife reside in Missouri.