Communicating Up, Down and Across the Organization

One of the best things you can do for your career is learn how to be a great communicator. After all, if you’re unable to get your point across in a way that inspires others to take action, how can your initiatives (or your career) possibly succeed? In any workplace conversation–whether it’s with a direct report, a peer, or the boss’s boss–effective communication skills are what distinguishes a good employee from a great leader.

Executive Presence

Executive Presence Across the OrganizationSurprisingly, good communication doesn’t start with the words that come out of your mouth. Rather, a good chunk of it takes place via body language. Good communicators know how to use words and body language to develop “executive presence” which helps them command their listeners’ attention.

Start with good eye contact–but don’t stare someone down. A good rule of thumb is to make eye contact with someone for a full thought before moving on to the next person. Making this connection with all the people at the table helps increase your engagement with them.

Show that you’re listening carefully by nodding and repeating back to them (paraphrasing the words, though) what you hear. Speak slowly and clearly, breathing consistently so your voice doesn’t trail off or warble. Vary your pitch and speak loudly and clearly enough to be heard at the back of the room: people won’t have confidence in what you’re saying if they can’t hear you (or if you sound terrified!).

Adapting Your Style

Adapting your style
Adapt your communication style to that of your audience so they can better hear you (hopefully with little or no shouting required).

When preparing to speak with others (especially a boss or a peer), it’s critical that you adapt your communication style to fit theirs. If you want someone to make a decision or take a particular course of action, present your proposal in a style that he or she can hear. For example, when speaking with people who are very direct and don’t like a lot of detail, don’t lead with detail; instead, lead out with your recommendation before going in to more detail. If, on the other hand, you’re talking with someone who likes to hear the detail first, then by all means adapt your style to give that person what he or she wants. If you’re not sure what someone’s preferred communication style is, pay careful attention to his or her interactions (especially nonverbal cues) with others. Take notes on the situations and styles to which you think that person did–and did not–respond well, then think about how you can emulate the good (and avoid the bad) when communicating with that person.

Communicating Up

Remember, bosses are typically circling at the 30,000-foot-high level so if you’re not sure of her or his style, it’s best to err on the side of less detail than more (although always bring it with you just in case they want all the nitty gritty bits). When you’re working in the dark, try this technique to engage them right from the start.

  • Set the expectation for your presentation. Indicate to your audience that you’re going to lead with the headline, then go into the details on how you reached your decision before opening it up to questions. This lets everyone know they’ll have time to dissect your recommendation and/or processes.
  •  Lead with your recommendation. How many times have you been promised 30 minutes with the boss only to see your meeting whittled down to 10 minutes? If you meticulously go through the details about how you arrived at your conclusion, you may run out of time before you get to share the conclusion itself. So start with “My recommendation is . . .”
  • Share key details that support your conclusion. Once your boss knows your recommendation, offer to walk him or her through the details that led you there. I’ve found it useful to present three or four major points and then, to make sure I’m hitting the one that interests my boss most and keeping him or her engaged, I ask which one I should drill down into first. If applicable, this is also be a good time to share any alternatives that you considered (and rejected), in case they were also on your boss’s mind.
  • Invite feedback on your proposal. Your request can be a simple “I would love your input.” Or you can ask for more information with “Do you have any concerns about my proposal?” or “I would love your advice on how to make this even better.” Directly asking for feedback shows that you’re actually interested in hearing your boss’s perspective (which is good, because he or she is probably going to give it to you anyway).

When  communicating with your boss, always remember that his or her time is precious. Use it wisely (and quickly).

Communicating Down

Communicating down in an organizationEngaging in this type of communication can be very similar to engaging in good management practices. There are some differences, though, so keep in mind these practical recommendations for communicating with employees who are junior to you.

  • Whether you are detailing your expectations, describing what is (or is not) working, or merely passing on information, be explicit. Someone junior to (and less experienced than) you may need more information in order to proceed.
  • Remember that even if your message has good intentions behind it, you cannot control how it’s received. Because the same words can mean different things to different people, follow up to verify that your message was indeed heard as you intended–and if it wasn’t, then clarify what you meant.
  • Don’t display impatience or annoyance if someone repeats an already-asked question or isn’t communicating clearly. Remember, each time you move up in an organization, chances are you’ll be learning something new. So show the same respect and patience to junior team members as you would like your superiors to show to you.
  • Positive reassurance goes a long way toward ensuring that junior members learn quickly so they are ready to move up. Don’t skimp on saying “Thank you” and “Good job” because those recognitions reinforce positive behaviors–and promote more of them in the future.
  • When things don’t go well, don’t shy away from giving feedback to employees on how to improve. If you don’t, how else they get better? Employee performance never improves through osmosis. People need specific (and supportive) feedback.

Communicating Across

Communicating Across the OrganizationCommunicating with peers across departments can be tricky for many reasons beyond differences in style. For example, in some instances personal conflicts between department managers can have a trickle-down effect on individual employees. Being in different physical locations can reduce the amount of communication flow (“Why walk down a flight of stairs–and back again–when I can shoot over an e-mail and call it a day?”). And departmental silos can often hamper interdepartmental communication.

There are all valid reasons for poor communication–but not valid justifications for it. Unresolved, they can jeopardize the future success of your company (or your career). Good managers can help ensure that everyone gets along in the corporate sandbox, so make it a priority to give more information than you get before you’re asked. A great rule of thumb is to follow “the JFK rule” for communication: “Ask not what information other departments can deliver to you but what information you can deliver to other departments.” In other words, be the leader who doesn’t withhold information in order to make his or her own department look better.

To ensure you’re doing all that you can to improve communications throughout your company, constantly ask yourself these questions:

  • What can I do differently to improve my communication with other departments?
  • What can I do to help my boss improve his or her communication with other departments?
  • What can I do to help my department colleagues improve their communication with other departments?


Author  and former presidential speechwriter James Humes said,

“The art of communication is the language of leadership.”

If you want to up your leadership game, focus first on your communication skills. By setting the example and following good communication practices (and calling out those who don’t), you’ll be helping to break down communication barriers for employees at all levels of the organization.

Next BlogTake a look at Part 1 of being an inclusive manager.

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