There was a time when communication within a team or organization was a one-way street. A message was crafted by upper management and passed down through the many levels of the corporate hierarchy until it reached its target audience.
Today though, things are different. Not only are organizations adopting remote/hybrid working models, experimenting with less traditional and hierarchical organizational structures, and encouraging cross-functional collaboration, but the expectations employees have of their employer are evolving.
In this new work environment, one-way communication often doesn’t cut it. It needs to be a two-way street, and that means embracing upward communication.
What Is Upward Communication?
Upward communication happens when an employee or leader communicates with someone who outranks them in the corporate hierarchy. For example, when an individual contributor communicates with their direct supervisor or a middle manager communicates with an executive, both are examples of upward communication. Typically, such communication aims to share insights, deliver constructive feedback, provide an explanation, or express concerns.
How Upward Communication Differs From Other Types of Communication
There are various ways communication can flow through any workplace, including in the form of downward, vertical, horizontal, and grapevine communication. Here is how those differ from upward communication.
- Downward Communication: Downward communication is the opposite of upward communication, as it happens when a leader communicates with those lower than them in the corporate hierarchy.
- Vertical Communication: Vertical communication refers to communication that happens linearly, either upward or downward communication in an organization.
- Horizontal Communication: Unlike upward communication where one communicates with someone who outranks them in the corporate hierarchy, horizontal communication happens between two hierarchical equals.
- Grapevine Communication: Grapevine communication refers to communication that occurs in an informal or social setting, and does not have to do with the corporate hierarchy as upward communication does.
The Importance of Upward Communication
It’s never too late to embrace the power of upward communication and make it a part of your team or organization's culture. In fact, doing so benefits not only individuals but the team as a whole as well.
For instance, today’s employees expect to feel heard and valued in the workplace, especially by their superiors. When they are, everyone wins. Individuals feel more motivated and engaged, while organizations become more likely to perform well financially.
However, in 2021 UKG found that 63% of 4,000 employees said that they feel their voice has been ignored in some way by their manager or employer. If this persists and upward communication is stifled, Dan Schawbel of UKG warns it can eventually make it difficult to retain talent. As he put it, “When employees don’t feel heard or feel their needs aren’t met, they are less likely to maximize their talents and experience at their workplace, and more likely to seek those opportunities elsewhere.” This was reiterated in a separate survey conducted by All Voices, where 41% of respondents said they have left a job because they didn’t feel listened to and 37% because their feedback wasn’t being taken seriously.
Also, given the roles of non-managerial employees and frontline leaders, they might have unique insight into your customer, product, and team culture because they live and breathe it every day. They are keepers of information and ideas that could be used to improve the customer experience, innovate, and create a better culture. But for organizations to unlock those potential benefits, they must ask for and encourage upward communication, even if it's uncomfortable and challenging to hear.
Upward Communication Tips for Individuals
Communicating with those who are your senior can be a nerve-wracking and challenging experience, whether you're an individual contributor presenting an idea to your direct supervisor or an executive sharing constructive feedback with your CEO. It takes time, experience, and practice to feel comfortable doing so. In the meantime though, it can help to remember the following tips:
- Know your audience and tailor your message to their communication style
- Choose your timing wisely, so the receiver isn’t distracted, busy, or irritated
- Don’t try to “kiss up to the boss.” Instead of flattery and unnecessary compliments, be respectful but straightforward, honest, and constructive
- Use the right communication channels for the topic of conversation (ex. Serious matters should be dealt with one-on-one vs. over Slack chat)
Upward Communication Tips for Organizations
In order for an organization to reap the potential benefits of upward communication, leaders at all levels need to be willing to ask for and encourage it. For that to become a reality, work on implementing the following tips as an organization:
- Set ground rules and expectations for upward communication and then have leaders lead by example so employees can see it in action
- Create a culture where there’s an open-door policy and feedback is welcomed
- Build psychological safety so that employees and leaders feel safe having difficult conversations or offering constructive feedback to their leaders
- Provide leaders with training on how to receive feedback
Next Steps: Learn to Embrace Upward Communication With Niagara Institute
Upward communication isn’t something that just happens. It requires work on the part of the organization, its leaders, and its employees. Part of that may require equipping employees and leaders with the skills they need to embrace upward communication, such as active listening and giving/receiving feedback. Fortunately, Niagara Institute has a robust catalog of group training programs on such topics and a lineup of certified professional coaches who can provide individualized support as needed.