A survey about employee voice has found that only 25% of employees feel like they can freely express themselves at work. This is especially problematic when employees don’t feel comfortable voicing their opinions and concerns to their higher-ups. Their unaddressed concerns can escalate and lead to serious repercussions, such as increased stress at work, conflicts, a decrease in productivity, and even resignation.
Upward communication, i.e. the information flow from subordinates to their superiors, is essential for the overall health and success of any organization. In this blog post, we’ll provide a more detailed definition of upward communication, talk about its benefits for everyone involved, consider some of its problems, and provide actionable tips on how managers and employees can work together to make upward communication more effective in the workplace.
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Upward communication is a communication type along the vertical axis of interaction among members of an organization. In other words, it’s a bottom-up communication flow from lower-level employees to their superiors.
Through this type of interaction, employees can voice their opinions, concerns, ideas, suggestions, complaints, and any other kind of comments about the day-to-day operations in the company.
This type of interaction doesn’t necessarily involve employees communicating with their immediate supervisors — they can “skip a few rungs up the ladder” and report to higher management. This practice is associated with internal whistleblowing, which employees resort to when they want to report the misconduct of their superiors to someone higher up the command chain.
Here’s an upward communication diagram, which showcases the flow of information from the lowest-level employees to the top management.
To better understand upward communication, let’s contrast it with its counterpart — downward communication. Downward communication flows in the opposite direction — from superiors to subordinates. Here’s a comparison table of the two types of vertical communication:
|To provide ideas,
offer suggestions, etc.
|To give orders,
assign responsibilities, etc.
In a way, downward communication is the default communication mode of any organization, as it ensures everyone knows what their responsibilities are and what the common goal is. However, lately, companies have realized just how important the bottom-up information flow is for healthy team communication. That’s why they started actively encouraging upward communication in the workplace.
Let’s go through some examples of upward communication.
Anonymous manager feedback surveys are a great way to gauge the employee sentiment about the performance of their supervisor, thus encouraging constructive upward communication. Managers can distribute these surveys when employee performance reviews are due — so that both employees and their superiors can get constructive feedback at the same time.
A great example of this kind of survey is Google’s sample manager feedback form. It contains a page of Likert scale questions asking employees to indicate their level of agreement with statements about the performance of their manager, as well as a few open-ended questions if they have any additional suggestions for their supervisor.
Lower-level employees’ opinion is not only vital regarding their manager’s performance but also when it comes to the day-to-day operations of the organization and important company decisions. Managers have the final say, but research shows that including the team in the decision-making process leads to much better decisions.
In an office setting, you can collect employee votes on any matter live (e.g. by raising hands), but in remote-first organizations and teams that rely on hybrid communication, you can use online polls.
These polls can be as simple as posting emoji surveys in your team chat app. You can post a statement and have employees “react their (dis)agreement” (e.g. by using 👍 and 👎 emojis). Alternatively, you can pose a multiple-choice question, and employees can choose the answer by reacting with an appropriate emoji.
🔸 Suggestion box
Suggestion boxes are a great way to encourage employees to provide suggestions for upper management whenever they have something to say. By providing an anonymous suggestion box, you create a direct channel for uninhibited upward communication.
You can either install an actual box (if you’re old-school) where employees can physically put their written suggestions or set up an online one. Then, you can either share the link to it via email or pin it in an appropriate channel of your team chat app so that employees can access it anytime.
Management should know they’re doing a great job when employees don’t need encouragement to speak what’s on their minds. Unfortunately, research by coaching company Bravely has shown that 70% of employees avoid difficult conversations with their higher-ups. That’s why it’s essential to foster open communication in the workplace so that everyone can speak their mind without reservations.
When managers have an open-door policy, employees feel free to directly approach them on any issue, be it in person or via another company communication channel, like in the following example:
Christopher is the newest addition to Stella’s remote sales team that uses Pumble for internal communication. He’s been working on a sales strategy for the company’s upcoming product for a while now, but Stella keeps requesting changes. Christopher believes that he would be able to avoid making so many mistakes in the first place if only he could consult with his supervisor more often. That’s why he decides to ask her for more regular check-ins directly in Pumble.
An apocryphal study circulating the business world allegedly dating back to the 1980s suggests the existence of “The Iceberg of Ignorance”. The concept implies that there’s a major disconnect between lower- and higher-level employees in traditional, hierarchical companies — i.e. the top management is only aware of “the tip of the iceberg” of operational problems.
The mysterious study suggests that:
Executives are aware of 4% of the company problems;
Middle management is aware of 9% of company problems;
Lower management is aware of 74% of company problems;
Front-line employees are aware of 100% of company problems.
Although the concept is of dubious origin, its widespread use and circulation are more than enough proof that the main idea behind it is true — upward communication in business is lacking.
Moreover, there’s actual research that indicates senior managers see fewer problems than their junior colleagues — as a result of insufficient upward feedback.
Upward communication is not only beneficial for lower-level employees — when information is allowed to flow freely across all hierarchical levels, everybody wins! Here are some benefits of this type of interaction for managers, employees, and organizations.
Here are some ways managers can benefit from upward communication.
Through upward communication, and especially feedback, managers can discover ways to grow and become better leaders. Just like employees, managers might be doing something wrong without even realizing it, and feedback can help them have a clearer picture of their leadership skills and what they need to work on.
If supervisors are not aware of the problems their employees might be experiencing, they can’t fix them or help other team members work on them. It’s not only about problems either — if they’re disconnected from their team, they’ll fail to recognize individual accomplishments and strengths, which can negatively affect employee morale and productivity.
By including their team in the decision-making process, managers are bringing different skills, perspectives, and opinions into play, and this kind of diversity is proven to lead to better decision-making. When the team is collaborating on a project the manager needs to make a decision about, upward communication brings first-hand insight to the table, which can be crucial for making the right choice.
When employees have the freedom to communicate their needs to higher-ups, they thrive. Here are some of the benefits upward communication brings to them.
According to the American Institute of Stress, 80% of U.S. employees are stressed out due to ineffective company communication. Open and honest communication with their supervisors can help solve this problem and drastically improve employee well-being in the workplace.
When people feel heard and appreciated, they are much more likely to enjoy their job. Consequently, they get better at doing their job. Workplace communication statistics show that those who feel heard at work are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best at work.
By voicing their opinions and concerns to receptive supervisors, employees get a chance to participate in decision-making regarding the things that concern them such as:
- work conditions;
- day-to-day operations;
- company procedures;
- project execution.
When employees’ voices are heard, their sense of purpose and belonging in the company increases. They are much more likely to share in the company’s values and be more motivated to take initiative in achieving their shared goals.
Apart from these advantages for management and employees, upward communication is highly beneficial for the health and wealth of the entire company.
When communication flows in all directions, teams become better at collaborating and improve operational efficiency. Front-line employees are the first ones to experience the effects of any bottlenecks in the workflow, and if they report them immediately, and provide suggestions as to how to remove them, these problems can be promptly resolved.
The unobstructed bottom-up flow of communication improves employee engagement, which leads to increased productivity, and ultimately — higher profits for the company. The Harvard Business School Online suggests managers should actively solicit feedback from their employees and act on it if they want to improve their company’s profitability.
As we have seen, employees are much more satisfied at work when their voices are heard and appreciated. Thus, they are much less likely to quit prematurely. This way, thanks to upward communication, the company reduces its turnover rates. A turnover can cost a company a third of the former employee’s salary, not to mention that excessive turnover can damage the company’s reputation as an employer.
No one is more familiar with your company operations than your front-line employees. This means they can contribute innovative ideas on how you can improve your operations and take them to the next level.
Interacting with higher-ups can get tricky, especially when employees need to provide critical feedback. Let’s discuss some communication barriers that may prevent a healthy flow of information up the command chain.
People have a deeply rooted, evolutionary fear of confronting authority figures. When our prehistoric ancestors challenged their leaders, those leaders punished them by depriving them of resources, banishing them — even killing them!
This fear is still ingrained in us, and confronting our bosses can have analogous consequences in the workplace — not getting a promotion, losing social capital, or even getting fired.
Even when managers are open to upward communication, employees often need to conquer this inherited fear before speaking up.
Of course, in some situations, the fear of speaking up is not unfounded. Autocratic leaders can be highly dictatorial, dismiss any input from those at the lower levels of the organizational hierarchy, and even punish any attempts to speak up.
This type of leader often slips into the belief they’re indispensable for the company’s success, when in reality, they slowly suffocate any attempts by lower-level employees to share in the decision-making or contribute any ideas — thus stifling their motivation and productivity.
The practice of kissing up to authority figures is as old as humanity itself. This practice still exists in the workplace today, and it can make upward communication pointless. When all the manager hears are sweet lies, they get a wrong picture of their performance and relationship with the team.
What’s more, if the majority of the team members kiss up to the supervisor, speaking the truth may make you sound like “that one person who complains about everything.”
No one is immune to criticism, no matter how constructive it is. However, when people in managerial positions are resistant to it, they can send the message that upward communication is unwelcome in the workplace. A survey by the company Voice Project has found that responding well to “bad” feedback is one of the most underdeveloped skills in most leaders.
According to this company, there are four types of managers based on their reaction to critical feedback:
- The Hurt — Takes everything personally and overreacts, e.g. “No one likes me, why shouldn’t I just quit.”;
- The Hunter — Tries to “hunt down” the person who left negative feedback and is often in denial, e.g. “I bet it was Judy who wrote this, she’s never satisfied with anything.”;
- The Hider — Avoids dealing with feedback, pretends it never arrived, and uses business as an excuse to deal with it, e.g. “I’m too busy now, we’ll go over it some other time.”;
- The Hearer — Actively listens and explores all feedback together with the team to find the best solutions.
A study titled “The Effect of Upward Feedback on Managerial Behavior” expounds on overwhelming data and research in favor of upward feedback, but recognizes that there are also studies that point to potential disadvantages of upward communication, such as the decline in managerial performance.
One crucial factor that seems to differentiate between successful and unsuccessful upward feedback is that the former focuses on specific behavior, whereas the latter goes for the managers’ perceived character traits.
For lower-level employees’ voices to be heard and acknowledged, both sides need to foster a culture of upward communication in the workplace. We’ll examine what managers and employees can do respectively to make bottom-up interaction more effective.
A research project on employee experience has found that 75% of employees would stay with a company longer if upper management heard them and addressed their concerns. Here’s what managers can do to encourage employees to speak up.
Having an open-door policy means your door (either office or virtual one) is open to every employee and their needs. In other words, it means you’re fostering a culture of openness and transparency so that anyone can approach you with their problems, concerns, and questions, but also ideas for improvement and feedback.
Since this policy could lead to more people reaching out to you, you need to find a way to respond to everyone and not forget to address any issue. For example, if more people DM you in your team chat app at the same time, you can read all the messages, prioritize, and mark the less urgent ones as unread so that you don’t forget about them and come back to them later.
If you’re a higher-level executive or even a CEO and you simply don’t have the time to have a heart-to-heart with each individual employee, you can create a #virtual-company-open-door channel where anyone can ask you anything that interests them about the company operations. You can go through these messages once or twice a week and dedicate specific time slots to them so that they don’t distract you.
It’s a great idea to establish a detailed internal communication plan so that employees understand the best channels through which they can reach you depending on their reason for contacting you.
For example, if they want to discuss the possibility of a promotion, you might instruct them to schedule a one-on-one meeting with you using your scheduling app. On the other hand, if they have a quick question or note, they can either DM you or write in the relevant team channel (e.g. if they have a suggestion for you, they can write in the #manager_feedback or #employee_suggestions channel).
You can also introduce systems for anonymous communication, such as the suggestion boxes we’ve talked about earlier in the article (e.g. “How can your manager better support you?” or “Suggestions for a new brand slogan”).
Just like employees are subject to regular formal performance reviews, so should you give them the opportunity to regularly give you feedback. Apart from encouraging them to reach out to you informally about anything that bothers them, you should conduct surveys, hold one-on-ones, or ask for other forms of formal feedback in regular intervals. This way, you’re letting them know that their observations about your performance are just as important as yours about their performance.
The question “Do you have any feedback for me?” will elicit no useful answer. You need to ask more specific questions so that it’s clear what kind of feedback you’re looking for. For example, you can ask “What do you think I might have done better regarding the last project?” because it implies you’re aware you’re not perfect and genuinely want them to help you improve.
Also, always ask for examples, especially when you receive critical feedback you’re not sure you agree with.
Invite participation from your team by showing them you value their ideas and opinions. Here are some examples of how to do that:
- Have brainstorming sessions together;
- Create sheets where everyone can pitch their ideas for various projects;
- Have individual team members share tips with others within their area of expertise;
- Create a dedicated channel in your team chat app where everyone can share useful files and other resources they deem valuable for the project.
Finally, none of these things will bring results if you invite employees to share but then reject their ideas, become defensive when they provide critical feedback, or punish them for being honest.
Managers are not solely responsible for facilitating this type of communication. They can prepare the ground, but employees are the ones who need to speak up. Here’s how they can make upward communication more effective.
Employees are often afraid to speak their minds for various reasons, but they have to be assertive in communication if they want to achieve the desired result. This means you need to be direct and honest about your needs while also being mindful of the interlocutor and not succumbing to negative emotions.
This way, you remain respectful and professional and increase your chances of being heard and acknowledged.
No matter what you’re struggling with, don’t be silent about it. Employees tend to shy away from asking for help or further clarification when they think they should be able to tackle the problem themselves. This issue is especially prevalent among remote employees as they often don’t feel as connected to their team as office workers do.
However, if you don’t reach out to your supervisor, you might end up wasting a lot of time running in circles trying to deal with a problem alone.
Be mindful of your supervisor’s (or another higher-up’s) schedule and find the appropriate time to contact them. Avoid approaching them during their break. You can check out their schedule if you have access to it or DM them in your business messaging app to ask when you can talk to them. However, if they’ve changed their status to “on a break”, “in a meeting” or similar, you should wait until they’re available again.
Think about the message you want to communicate and choose the communication channel accordingly. If you want to make a formal request, you may want to use email. If you have a suggestion after your supervisor’s presentation, you can approach them right away in person or in your business chat app if you’re a remote team.
On the other hand, if you want to discuss your future at the company, you might want to schedule a live or video conference meeting.
As you can see, upward communication is important for success in the workplace, and employees and managers should work together to improve the bottom-up interaction within the organization.
Moreover, successful two-way interaction within an organization reflects on its external image. Happy employees are the best brand ambassadors. If a company is not mindful of its employees’ needs, they will talk negatively about it. They will also not put their maximum in their work, which will affect more than the company’s reputation.
Luckily, there are many ways teams can foster upward communication to everyone’s benefit. Hopefully, you’ll find the tips in this article helpful and implement them in your team to “melt the hierarchical iceberg of ignorance” and achieve the best possible team collaboration.