Communication Up and Down the Chain of Command

When I worked in a corporate environment, I emailed a weekly report to my immediate supervisors. It often seemed like a tiresome chore or waste of time. I would send my report to my supervisor, and my supervisors and the various people above them, in turn, would send my report (plus theirs) up the chain of command. Likewise, my supervisors would send me a lot of messages about what was happening within the organization. Such information was necessary to keep the organization functioning smoothly. Today I’ll explain a little bit about how those information flows work, what they should contain, and why they’re important.

Bottom-Up Communications

Information flowing from the bottom of the chain of command up to the top usually takes the form of status reports:

  • Work/tasks accomplished
  • Classes taken: both required courses such as safety or computer security and optional classes, such as professional development seminars
  • Projects performed with other coworkers or departments
  • Resources needed: paper, printer toner, new computer/peripherals, etc.
  • Challenges experienced: inability to reach a particular customer, difficulties obtaining help from other coworkers/departments, etc.

You can tell your leaders what you’re doing verbally, but written/electronic reports are often easier for them to track, especially if they have multiple people reporting to them. Depending on the size of the organization, they will in turn summarize what they and their team(s) are doing. By the time reports reach the Chief Executive Officer, they can be quite long….or they could be aggregated and summarized to the level of detail they require so that they have enough situational awareness to make wise decisions affecting the future of the organization. If they want more information, they will filter their request back down to the appropriate level of the organization.

Top-Down Communications

Ideally, your organization is communicating with you as well. These types of messages will include:

  • Safety information: physical risks related to organization facilities, hardware, or personnel; natural disasters; accidents; etc.
  • Department, division, or organization-wide status (progress or challenges, profits or losses)
  • Strategy or organizational changes to meet external opportunities or threats
  • New laws, regulations, or policies that affect the organization’s operations or personnel
  • “Win” announcements: new contract awards, company recognition, etc.
  • Personnel changes
  • Meeting notices

These types of information should be shared as well, again at the appropriate level. Some policies that might affect management or salaried personnel but not front-line/hourly employees. Some announcements might only affect a particular division or physical location (e.g., employees in California don’t need to know about a severe weather warning in Florida).

Horizontal Communications

“Horizontal” communications are those that occur between departments. Often these are communications between project members in matrixed organizations, where project teams are drawn from individuals across multiple departments. These types of communications amount to sharing top-down or bottom-up messages from other organizations in situations where activity in one department that normally would not affect another CAN affect others because of the shared/matrixed work. Examples might include:

  • Department-level personnel changes
  • Department-level or location-specific operating hour changes
  • Process or paperwork changes within a particular organization

Is All This Communicating Really Necessary?

While money is the primary resource that keeps a business, government agency, or nonprofit organization operating, information is a close second in importance. If information is not shared with the appropriate urgency and with the appropriate people in a timely manner, the organization will be unable to make decisions about how to to invest its time and money, react the challenges (or the competition), and even make decisions about items such as employee pay. So while your weekly report might seem like a time-wasting chore, it isn’t. In a very real sense, it’s helping your organization survive and thrive in a constantly changing environment.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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