Effective Downward Communication

Downward communication is the information that is exchanged between a manager and a subordinate. In the best of cases, the information is clear and direct. Most of the time, the information is absent.

The information being exchanged could be orders, recognition, coaching, performance evaluations or general information exchange.

All downward and upward communication take place in a framework of authority and power of one person (a manager) over another (an employee). Because of these power dynamics, the potential for miscommunication is high. This article explores each type of downward communication, its potential problems and solutions.

Downward communication - Giving Orders

Downward CommunicationAs a manager, you give general direction and specific orders to your employees. You want those directives to be understood and followed. This is not the time when you want dissent and debate. You already sought input from others and decided what you want done. So you issue a directive to your employee(s).

You’d think that this type of communication would be simple enough, a manager gives an order or direction, and the subordinate follows it. But experience shows that this isn't the case.

Examples of what could go wrong when giving orders A manager X is giving direction or orders to an employee Y.

For starters X could be a jerk; power went to his head as he moved up the ranks.

Or X could be weak and not state his directive in a clear and straightforward way.

Or X could use the wrong words, words that often trigger poor reactions in a listener.

Conversely, Y could be predisposed against X, from previous interactions.

Or Y could be reluctant to follow instructions because he/she disagrees with them.

Or Y could misunderstand the directive, and proceed to implement it the wrong way.

How to give direction and orders that get followed

• Avoid any of the trigger phrases, such as “You need to start…” “You should…” “You are wrong about…” “You are making a mistake on…” “Why don’t you fix your...” Click here for a more complete list of trigger phrases.

• Be respectful and yet clear and direct, do not suggest direction, but give direction. Be clear about your expectations for results and for completion dates.

• Make sure the employee understood the direction; ask her to summarize what she understood you want done.

• Ask for a completion date. If the employee can’t give you a date now, because she needs to do additional fact finding, then ask her for a date when the fact finding will be completed.

• If you notice any hesitation from the employee, ask her what’s on her mind, tell her you sense hesitation or concerns and now is the time to clear them up.

Downward Communication – Giving Recognition

Giving recognition needs to be an ongoing activity. The reasons go beyond people's need or desire for recognition. An employee needs to know when he or she hits the mark and is doing things right. A manager needs to let employees know what behaviors are wanted and expected.

Employee RecognitionBoth employees and managers benefit from this form of downward communication.

Most managers enjoy giving positive feedback to their employees. With a few exceptions, people like seeing the satisfaction that others get when they get acknowledged for a job well done.

A few pointers on how to give positive feedback.

• Be forthright about it; do not give recognition as a way to manipulate the employee.

• Give recognition right after the performance that merits the acknowledgement.

• Recognize specifics, not generalities. Link the employee's accomplishments to the contributions made to the goals of the department or company.

• Adjust the recognition to the deed, the bigger the accomplishment, the bigger and more public the recognition. Always ask if this is ok with the employee, sometimes employees do not like public recognition. Still, the mere act of asking them about it is enough for them to know that their performance deserved it. They may tell you to skip the public part altogether, so given them recognition in private.

• Take note (literally) of the accomplishments of each employee, so you don’t forget to include them in their performance evaluations. The evaluation can be used to reward employees with raises and promotions in due time.

Downward Communication – Correcting Behavior

Yellow Card WarningAs soon as you see an employee deviating from performance expectations, take the time to give feedback to the employee so the undesirable behavior doesn’t repeat and become ingrained. When left unattended, even the smaller infractions can creep up and become performance issues later on.

Case in point: When an extremely sharp manager began reporting to me a few years ago, I gave him full authority to order items that he saw fit to get a critical project completed.

His first purchase was an office chair that was just a bit more expensive than all the other chairs in the department. Since it wasn’t extravagant, just a tad more expensive, I didn't tell the employee anything, I let it go.

Next, he bought multiple screens to monitor the availability of a system he was implementing. I thought it was excessive but given that the system was highly complex, I let it go again. Over and over, I ignored individual purchases that by themselves did not amount to much.

Eventually, I got a call from my boss asking me explain why the manager’s office looked "so luxurious and inappropriate, like some kind of command center." I tried to explain my rationale. My boss asked me why I didn’t stop the manager’s purchases as they were taking place.

I realized I made the mistake of not correcting unwanted behavior early in the working relationship with my employee. Don't make the same mistake.

Downward Communication – Giving Information

Information flowing top down to employees is never enough, so make a point to spread information as often as possible and using as many channels as you can think of. You can use emails, department meetings, staff meetings, blogs, and other internal collaboration tools that your company may have.

Be open to employees asking you for additional information on subjects that are important to them. Be open to discussing their concerns and their ideas. In times of crisis, you may think that your duty is just to keep the staff informed, but this may be a perfect opportunity to find out if employees have ideas on how to deal with the crisis at hand.

Proactively share with employees information that you are privy to. Why? (1) Employees will understand the bigger picture of their work; (2) Employees know they are being kept informed of matters that affect their daily lives, and (3) The grapevine won't be as busy.

Downward Communication – Getting Information

You may not view getting information as “downward communication”; after all, the information is flowing upward. The reason why it’s being discussed in this context is because the manager seeking information initiated this interaction, so the dynamics of power are in full effect.

In the same way you as a leader provide information to your employees, there will be times when you need to get information from them. This could be in the form of reports, answers, explanations, statuses, advice and information.

You may be tempted to bypass the organization structure and use your grapevine network, but doing so undermines your authority with those employees that report directly to you. You risk losing their trust and confidence. You also risk getting inaccurate information, since the person may not have the complete picture or may have an agenda about the subject.

Use the reporting structure to gather information and when you get information from other channels, bring it out in the open with the rest of the organization. Foster a culture of openness and directness.

Downward Communication – Giving Performance Appraisals

A key component of effective performance appraisals is ongoing feedback to the employee regarding his or her performance. Provide good and bad feedback often, it’s one of the most effective ways to ensure that employees perform to expectations and grow to become the best employees that they can be.

A discussion with the employee about performance has three parts:

(1) Reviewing goals and expectations for the performance period,

(2) Reviewing employee performance for the period and

(3) Setting goals and expectations for the next performance period.

Performance EvaluationThe performance discussion cannot take place in the vacuum; it has to take place against a context of expectations.

Do not skip over the areas where the employee needs to improve, do not minimize the performance problems.

Just be clear but kind, most employees dislike performance evaluation time. Avoid offending or attacking the person, just focus on the performance that needs to be improved.

Conversely, do not skip over areas where the employee excelled. You need to let the employee know what behavior and performance needs to be repeated or increased.

Summing up

The usual guidelines for effective communication also apply to downward communication. However, a manager needs to have added care when communicating with employees, because of the power dynamics that are at play.

An effective leader will communicate with their employees with clarity, strength and respect.