Formal Communication in Organizations

Formal Communication is the easiest way to communicate in the workplace, because it's all predefined by the by the organizational structure.

The organizational chart lays out the reporting structure, lines of authority and channels of communication.

The typical organizational structure looks like a pyramid, at the top you find the big boss, the position that hold the greatest authority, power and responsibility over the rest of the organization.

Within the framework of the organizational structure, the formal channels of communication include downward, upward, horizontal and matrix communication (marked with yellow lines on the chart).

Organization Chart

Downward communication is the communication that flows down the chain of command: orders, directives, coaching, counseling, disciplinary actions, and general information.

Upward communication is the communication that flows up the chain of command: reports, concerns, questions, statuses, and general communication.


Matrix communication aka Diagonal Communication doesn’t follow the organizational chain of command: it super-imposes it. Matrix communication is considered formal communication because it has been pre-approved and agreed upon by people in positions of authority.

Matrix communication includes project communication, task force communication and committee communication.

Project Communication is based on a pre-established and agreed upon project team membership, which can include members from multiple departments and multiple levels.

Formal Communication - Rules of Engagement

Formal communication in organizations has rules, some of them spelled out and some of them unspoken.

The explicit rules include:

  • Go through channels
  • Adhere to orders and direction coming from above
  • Escalate problems as needed going through your chain of command

The unspoken rules include:

  • Avoid badmouthing your boss; it will get back to him/her sometime, somehow. If you must complain about your boss, then do it with someone outside the organization. Unless of course, it’s a formal complaint, then use the proper organizational channels for that.
  • You can bypass the formal lines of communication, if you do it with skill.
  • In social settings, when you interact with others outside the communication structure, use good judgment on what you discuss and who you talk about. Many people feel that having an access to their boss’s boss in a social setting gives an opportunity to discuss workplace issues. Indeed, it does, but your boss is likely to take issue with it.
  • Avoid badmouthing your subordinates with your boss. Your boss is likely to think (and tell you) that it’s a problem for you to solve. You may appear as someone trying to shirk responsibility.

What’s beyond formal channels of communication?

Treading outside the formal channels of communication has its risks and rewards. It takes skill to do it successfully, you just have to be careful not to step on your peer’s toes, or your boss’s toes, or anyone’s toes for that matter.

An example of the potential risks and rewards: You volunteer to solve a problem for someone in another area in your department. If all goes well, you score points with your boss; heck, it may even land you a promotion or a raise.

However, if all goes wrong, you may alienate the people in the department that are working on that specific problem. They may not welcome you butting in, even if it solves their problem.

Before you decide to break the established lines of communication, you may want to read about the potential consequences of breaking workplace rules.


The easiest and safest route is to stick to the formal channels of communication, when asking for direction, when reporting problems, and when exchanging information.

If you find your current reporting structure too confining, make yourself available to join task forces or projects, where your work will be more visible to others besides your boss and co-workers.


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