More than just a management buzzword, effective upward communication can make the difference between a company with strong relationships between staff and one where executives are disconnected from employees on the ground.
This article will look at what upward communication is, why it’s important for businesses, and detail how you can improve upward communication in your organization.
What is upward communication?
Most companies typically operate with a hierarchy, whether a business is small or large. At the top level, managers and executives are responsible for decision-making, organization, and strategic direction. Meanwhile, their junior colleagues take responsibility for executing those business strategies and a company’s day-to-day operation.
Upward communication refers to communication that flows from less senior staff to their more senior managers and directors. It is opposed to downward communication, in which higher-level executives communicate with their employees.
Whereas downward communication often involves broadcast-style communication channels such as newsletters or executive directives, upward communication generally works the other way around. That is to say, communications from many staff members are usually funneled to one or a small number of senior staff.
Why is upward communication important?
There are many advantages to clear and consistent upward communication in the workplace. These include helping to build trust between staff, keeping employees engaged, and generally healthier relationships in the workplace.
Employees who trust their managers tend to be happier in their jobs and more motivated in their work. Alongside protecting employee data by implementing appropriate cybersecurity practices, employers can build trust by improving upward communication. That’s because a workplace that emphasizes upward communication and where employees are encouraged to voice their opinions cultivates greater trust between senior, and junior staff.
More engaged employees
When employees trust their managers and can communicate their thoughts upward, they are more engaged in their work and may be more committed to a company’s business goals.
This is true even of large businesses with hundreds or thousands of employees like an enterprise call center. In such enterprises, employee engagement can be a significant challenge, making consistent, trust-based upward communication even more valuable.
Healthier workplace relationships
Just as relationship marketing has emerged as a novel approach to marketing that focuses less on attracting new customers and more on retaining existing ones, businesses are also looking to retain their best employees through cultivating healthy workplace relationships rather than constantly recruiting new staff.
Companies that allow employees to communicate their feelings to their employers can counter the stereotype of the mean boss and create an environment where manager-employee relationships are built on mutual trust, and friendship.
Healthy workplace relationships are arguably the ultimate goal of better upward communication between employees and their managers. They lead to happier, more productive teams, better collaboration, and help companies attract and retain talent.
How to improve upwards communication
Now that you understand what upward communication is and why it’s essential for businesses, the next challenge is how you can enhance upward communication in your organization.
Start with company culture.
Whether you work in a retail outlet, an outbound call center, a busy newsroom, or any other workplace, having the right company culture is the number one factor contributing to good upward communication. If they are to feel able to communicate with more senior colleagues, employees of all seniority levels need to know that the workplace culture will support them.
To encourage open communication between staff members, try to promote social events and activities that can help build relationships and boost morale. If you’re a senior manager, make an effort to attend company-wide events, and don’t be afraid to spend time with your junior colleagues outside of work.
Nothing ruins employee relationships and inhibits open communication like bullying or a toxic atmosphere in the workplace. Promote a safe, professional environment by running training initiates and having the correct processes for employees to voice their concerns; or if they have any complaints or issues that need resolving.
Finally, remember that hiring plays a considerable role in company culture. Recruitment drives should prioritize building teams centered on solid communication, collaboration, and effective leadership.
Focus on approachable leadership
Now, of course, changing company culture requires making informed policy decisions and recognizing the vital role of managerial staff. For example, a 2021 survey by Gallup found that management style accounts for 70% of the variance in team engagement that their research uncovered.
While business leaders need to demonstrate confidence, that doesn’t mean they need to rule over their employees like a dictator. A company where staff perceives management as aloof or unapproachable will never foster open upward communication.
Approachable leadership is even more critical for organizations that operate a remote employment model. It can be hard to develop the rapport required for upward communication without face-to-face interactions. If this problem sounds familiar, consider deploying a communications solution specifically designed for remote workers, such as the Dialpad remote office phone system.
Whether teams work remotely or not, leaders who want their employees to feel comfortable approaching them with questions and concerns need to pay attention to how they communicate.
Try these tips for approachable leadership:
- Explain how and why you came to make decisions
- Avoid giving instructions with no context
- Listen to your staff and take on board their suggestions
- Don’t assume you always know how best to proceed
- Ask plenty of questions
- Never be dismissive of other people’s ideas
Create employee feedback mechanisms
One of the prizes of upward communication is the valuable feedback that executives can receive from employees on the business front lines. Leaders can’t always directly experience the day-to-day challenges their staff faces and need a way to collect the information necessary to inform business decisions.
Having specific policies and procedures to gather feedback means managers can better represent their staff in the boardroom or head office. Rather than simply relying on staff to come forward with suggestions, feedback mechanisms that routinely survey employees can generate important quantitative and qualitative data, giving decision-makers more insights than informal feedback alone.
There are plenty of ways to collect feedback which will vary depending on the specifics of your company and leadership style.
Instead of the same old email surveys, try inventing how you collect feedback. For example, you could use a QR code generator to create QR codes that staff can scan with their phones to take them to an online employee feedback form.
The more often employees are encouraged to give feedback, the more feedback you will be able to collect. While annual employee surveys are commonplace in many businesses, look for opportunities to institute feedback mechanisms more regularly, for example, by including them as part of weekly or monthly meetings.
Keep communication channels open.
As well as routine feedback procedures, you should try to foster a feedback culture in which employees give feedback continuously.
A feedback culture is a type of company culture that encourages every employee to voice their opinion. When staff feels they have the right to give feedback to any other person in the organization, it leads to healthier dialogue and more productive upward communication.
To make free and transparent upward communication as easy as possible, companies need to keep communication channels between senior and junior staff members as open as possible. That means providing formal feedback and more informal means for employees to contact their managing executives.
If possible, make contact details for senior staff available for all employees. You can even create dedicated channels for upwards communication, such as having separate email addresses that company executives can be contacted via available specifically for this purpose.
Of course, even c-level directors need to be able to disconnect from their jobs when they’re not working, but while they are, why not make the most of modern communication channels like instant messaging and cloud-based phone systems?
Track employee engagement
Modern businesses are increasingly applying lessons learned from customer relationship-focused analytics such as RFM analysis to the challenge of tracking their internal relationships.
We’ve discussed employee engagement a fair bit in this article, but how do you know your employees are engaged in their work? Tracking engagement is important as it can reveal whether upward communication initiatives work and where to focus your attention for maximum gains.
Employee engagement surveys are a great way to measure how engaged various teams are. They can shed light on problem areas and help you to track improvement in this area.
Remember that employee engagement is a broad concept covering anyone who could be included within the employee category. Even temporary or subcontracted workers can have valuable insight that can contribute to the operational success of a business. So if you outsource testing, or enlist the help of a third-party accounting firm, try to include these employees in your engagement-tracking efforts.
Try to have a mix of questions in any engagement survey to generate quantitative and qualitative data. To get quantitative data, use questions with a yes/no answer or a 1-5 scale. For qualitative data, use open-ended questions and leave space for employees to give more detailed explanations. You can also set up an internal blog to speed up communication and improve team collaboration.
Some helpful questions on employee engagement surveys include:
- How satisfied are you with your current work?
- Do you believe that your employer recognizes and rewards you for good work?
- How comfortable do you feel approaching your manager(s)?
- Does your employer provide you with adequate employee training and development opportunities?
- Do you have any suggestions for how we could improve your work environment?
Consider alternative operational models.
One final question you should ask yourself if you want to enhance upward communication at your business is whether your operating model is optimized for open communication.
While some structure is essential for all organizations, modern businesses are increasingly eschewing traditional hierarchies for more dynamic, agile organizational paradigms.
In this respect, the tech sector, especially software development, has been the source of many of the most disruptive innovations in recent years. Many business methodologies being applied today were first innovated by the open-source software movement and programming traditions that have their origins as much hobbyist and subcultural circles as they do in business.
Just think about how Google, one of the biggest companies globally, has used open source to build and improve everything from its search algorithms to its pioneering Artificial Intelligence engine TensorFlow. If you don’t know what Tensorflow is, it’s worth reading this
Databricks article on TensorFlow to get a feel for just how powerful the open-source model for product design can be.
Businesses have long used some form of a traditional hierarchy structure to operate. This system involves employees reporting to supervisors, who then have their own supervisors — and so on. Most employees are accustomed to this structure. But is there a better way?
Other well-known businesses that have succeeded in alternative organizational models include Zappos, GitHub, and WordPress, all of which have successfully adopted structures that challenge the traditional hierarchy.
Terms like flat structure, flatarchy, and holacracy refer to post-hierarchical organizational structures that emphasize dynamic, multidirectional communication.
Working towards balanced communication
As the world of work increasingly moves away from traditional hierarchies that prioritize top-down business processes to more flexible, agile models, the two-dimensional model for corporate communications appears less in line with how companies today work. As such, the language of business communication is evolving to reflect new operational norms.
Maybe the current emphasis on upward communication vis-a-vis downwards communication is only a step towards a new language for describing today’s flat hierarchies and dynamic company structures. But in the meantime, it is undoubtedly an important consideration for all organizations.
The purpose of having hierarchies in business is to ensure that the people making the decisions are those most qualified. But the most experienced managers also know how to make the most of the experience of their staff. Companies that focus on downward communication alone miss out on this valuable resource.
Ultimately, of course, upward communication does need to be balanced with effective downward communication. It isn’t a case of one or the other. Upward and downward communication needs to complement each other.
Following the advice laid out in this post, you should be well on improving upward communication in your business. With rewards including better managerial decision-making, healthier workplace relationships, and more engaged, stimulated employees up for grabs, what are you waiting for?