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What Does It Mean to Communicate Vertically & Horizontally as a Manager?

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It’s not your imagination if you feel the majority of your work day is spent communicating. When you add up presentations, answering questions, composing emails and even listening, it’s easy to see how important communication is. As a manager, you are also likely communicating more with other managers in addition to employees you supervise. Communicating is a natural function, but it's worth putting some thought into how it affects others in the office.

Vertical Communication

When you have a conversation with your direct supervisor, you are engaging in upward, vertical communication. When you give a verbal directive or feedback to your assistant whom you supervise, you are engaging in vertical downward communication. Communication that guides and facilitates work processes is known as formal communication, and is guided by a company’s organizational structure. On the organizational chart directly above your name is your supervisor’s name, indicating that your communication should be with her; if necessary, she’ll pass it along upward to her supervisor. Similarly, as a manager, you have names of employees below you on the chart who should communicate upward to you, and you, in turn, will take any issue beyond your managerial scope to your supervisor.

Horizontal Communication

Horizontal communication is also a type of formal communication necessary to your job. If you are working on a cooperative project with another department manager, your communication with him is horizontal communication. It can also occur within your own department with one of your managerial peers. The primary difference is that, rather than directing work to subordinates or asking for guidance from a supervisor, your horizontal communication facilitates cooperation with your peers.

Effective Vertical Communication

Emotions can get in the way of effective communications; as a manager, it’s important that you keep your emotions in check when communicating to either your subordinates or your supervisor. It’s also likely that your employees will communicate with you when they’re emotional, particularly if they’re involved in a conflict, so listen patiently, and try to ask questions to clarify their concerns. Listening is an important and often difficult communication skill, but important to building trust. It’s more than remaining quiet while the other person is talking; it’s focusing on what they are saying rather than on formulating your response.

Managers should also remember that it’s permissible, and desirable, to take a personal interest in subordinates. You don’t have to socialize with them outside the office, but you can ask about an ill child, for example. This isn’t just for morale; it builds trust, so your employees feel comfortable soliciting feedback or approaching you with problems before they become office-wide problems. It also helps you understand individual personalities so you gain insight into the best way to communicate with them.

Effective Horizontal Communication

One challenge of horizontal communication is that you may not have frequent communications with these individuals, so depending on the size of your organization it may feel like you’re just getting to know one another. Listening is also critical in this type of communication, especially if you’re cooperating on a project. You may also encounter some conflict. If you can’t agree on an ideal approach to a project, it runs the risk of turning combative. Remember to keep your emotions in check, apologize when appropriate, and be discreet. Don’t let your disagreements become office fodder. Ask questions to help you get to the other person’s intent and find a common ground. Rather than letting things escalate, seek additional input.


Based in Central Texas, Karen S. Johnson is a marketing professional with more than 30 years' experience and specializes in business and equestrian topics. Her articles have appeared in several trade and business publications such as the Houston Chronicle. Johnson also co-authored a series of communications publications for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She holds a Bachelor of Science in speech from UT-Austin.

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