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Are These Mistakes Sabotaging Your Horizontal Communication?

Are These Mistakes Sabotaging Your Horizontal Communication?

Imagine this: You’re walking to your desk when a colleague from another department stops you to ask you a question about the project you’re working on together. After answering them, you carry on to your desk and respond to the emails and Slack messages that have accumulated since you last logged on. Then the teammate you work closest with shows up to discuss a problem they’re having.

This entire scenario is a prime example of horizontal communication, which is the type of communication that happens all the time among peers in the workplace.

Given how prevalent it is in our day-to-day lives on the job, it’s important for you to know what common mistakes get in the way of genuinely effective horizontal communication so that you can make an effort going forward to avoid them yourself. But first, let’s review what horizontal communication is and is not.


Is the way you communicate helping or hindering your effectiveness as a leader?  Find out in this guide.


What Is Horizontal Communication?

Horizontal communication, also known as lateral communication, happens when individuals on the same level of the organizational hierarchy communicate. It is communication between peers that can occur either in-person or online, one-on-one or in a group setting, in the written form of emails and instant messages, or verbally in the form of meetings, video calls, and hallway discussions.

This is just one of the many directions communication can take. In any workplace, communication also flows upward, downward, and vertically. Here is a brief description of how each differs from horizontal communication:

  • Vertical vs. Horizontal Communication: Vertical communication happens when individuals communicate up and down the organizational hierarchy, while horizontal communication is between individuals on the same level.
  • Downward vs. Horizontal Communication: Downward communication happens when an individual, such as a leader or supervisor, communicates with someone under them on the organizational hierarchy. This is different than horizontal communication, which happens between two equals on the organizational hierarchy.
  • Upward vs. Horizontal Communication: Upward communication happens when an individual communicates with someone who outranks them on the organizational hierarchy. This is different than horizontal communication, which happens between two equals on the organizational hierarchy.
  • Grapevine vs. Horizontal Communication: Grapevine communication is an informal and unofficial form of communication that in certain circumstances can be classified as gossip. Unlike horizontal communication which happens between two equals on the organizational hierarchy, grapevine communication can happen between any individuals, regardless of their place on the organizational hierarchy.


4 Horizontal Communication Mistakes To Avoid

The vast majority of professionals in today’s workplace rely on horizontal communication in order to do their job and do it well. It’s why it’s so important to avoid making otherwise preventable mistakes. If you don’t, poor horizontal communication can lead to unnecessary conflict with colleagues, impede your ability to collaborate with others, harm your working relationships, and compromise your performance. So, ask yourself, am I making any of these mistakes? If so, what am I going to do about it?


Expectations Aren’t Defined

Whether spoken or unspoken, you and your peers at work have expectations regarding how you communicate with one another.

For example, my peers and I share an understanding that when we ask each other questions over our internal chat, we aren’t owed an immediate response as the other person may be in the middle of something. If an immediate response is needed, we’d call. This is an expectation we’ve discussed and mutually agreed upon. But imagine if we hadn’t. If this expectation was left undefined and unspoken, it could lead someone to believe they were being ignored and cause unnecessary frustration, resentment, and tension. This would be a mistake.

So, if you have expectations of how you want your peers to communicate with you, talk about it with them and define your expectations together. The time spent doing so will pay off in the long run and make horizontal communication significantly easier.


Overloaded with Communication Tools

For horizontal communication to take place, especially in a hybrid and remote work environment, you need a communication tool, platform, or app that can facilitate it. While most companies have this covered, the mistake is when you have too many tools at your disposal. When this happens, it can quickly cause confusion among peers and overcomplicate horizontal communication, which should be easy and free-flowing.

In fact, long before the pandemic-induced shift to remote work that led to a boom in the popularity of communication tools, this was causing problems for people. According to a 2018 RingCentral survey of over 2,000 knowledge workers, they found that:

  • Employees used an average of four communication apps, while 20% used 6+ apps
  • 69% of respondents waste up to an hour each day navigating between communications apps, amounting to a waste of 32 days per year
  • 69% of respondents toggle between apps up to 10 times an hour which 31% said causes them to lose their train of thought
  • Over 70% of respondents said their communications volume makes it a challenge to get work done

Knowledge workers toggle between communication apps up to 10 times an hour


Boundaries Aren’t Set

If you want to engage in horizontal communication with your peers, that’s as healthy as possible; you must set boundaries with them upfront. This means explicitly stating what it is you are willing to do and what you are not willing to do. If you don’t, that mistake can cause burnout, stress, anxiety, and poor working relationships.

Here’s an example that many of you will have experienced before. Your colleague calls, texts, emails, or instant messages you for help hours after your workday has concluded. If you haven’t set boundaries, you might immediately respond. While this might be acceptable on occasion or if your job calls for it, if that’s not the case, this Forbes author perfectly explains why it’s a mistake:

“Having poor boundaries often means you’re responsive to other people’s needs and expectations at the expense of your own. This leads to a loss of control over your own work and results, which is not only depressing, but it leads to even worse control over your boundaries. And that not only leads to more abuse of your boundaries, but also increases people’s expectations that you will be available on-demand for them no matter the cost to you.”


Communication Isn’t Intentional

In 2022, Grammarly surveyed 1,000 knowledge workers and found that of those respondents, 24.52 hours were spent per week communicating at work, and of those, 19.93 hours communicating in writing. Meanwhile, leaders were found to spend 36 hours per week communicating.

Given that the average workweek is 40 hours, that means over half our time is spent just communicating! This is why it’s so crucial for horizontal communication to be intentional and to the point. Not only don’t you have the time for poorly thought-out and ineffective communication, but your peers don’t either. So going forward, be mindful of this and ask yourself if what you’re communicating is necessary, clear, and succinct.

People Spend 24.52 Hours Per Week Communicating At Work


Next Steps: Hone Your Skills and Build Your Confidence with Communication Training

If your horizontal communication isn’t as effective as you think it could be, you will want to make note of it in your individual development plan and even enroll yourself in a training program, such as the bestselling leadership communication training program, Speaking as a Leader. The best thing about doing so is that the skills, tools, and techniques you learn in such training are not only applicable to horizontal communication, but every other direction communication can take in the workplace as well.

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