Written By: Steven Winter, Columnist, International Director
Human-resources managers often devise organizational structures, develop codes of conduct and set guidelines for organizational behavior. Those measures are certainly beneficial in that they orient the behavior of individuals within the organization towards achieving organizational objectives. Yet, one shortcoming of those procedures is that they ignore the nature of human behavior, which is predictable only to a certain extent. Human behavior can hardly be modeled given its variety and the diversity of the people themselves. Unintended behavior is likely to appear in any organization. Informal communication between employees is one form of that behavior, and managers can certainly leverage it for the benefit of their organizations as a whole.
Informal communication as unintended behavior
Informal communication does not require rigorous planning on the part of the organization’s executives. It is best when it happens spontaneously. And even though many managers do not pay attention to this type of communication, it is crucial for effective coordination between team members. This coordination is essential for success in almost all work domains. Informal communication can take place by means of physical proximity as well as artificial proximity, and increasing that proximity with modern technology can help in reinforcing positive communication.
Benefits of informal communication
Informal communication comes with a host of benefits. Those include more flexibility, better relationships, better chances of resolving conflicts and higher efficiency. Informal communication helps individuals convey information, even when their positions do not entail conveying such information. In particular, informal communication offers greater benefits in times of uncertainty, which demand a higher level of coordination between team members to deal with such circumstances.
Companies lag behind in leveraging informal communication.
Despite the benefits, there is no clear policy regarding informal communication in most organizations. One survey showed that this is true for 92.4 percent of the managers who responded. In general, managers do not take an active role in promoting this form of communication, and their attitudes towards it vary. The term often used to describe this type of communication is grapevine, as information transfers through informal channels and networks called the organizational grapevine. But managers may have a negative view about these networks.
A lucid example of the success of this type of communication is Elon Musk’s approach in management. One of Musk’s most notable rules has been the one regarding the movement of information in his company. Musk has advised that any employee, regardless of his or her position, can contact any other member within the organization, also regardless of his or her position, in order to solve the problem that that individual is facing. According to this approach, the best form of communication is determined by what is best for the organization within its respective circumstances, and not the rigidity of organizational structures. The results have included more efficient communication, better problem-solving capability and impressive growth for Tesla.
Informal communication is often the alternative.
Employees resort to informal channels when formal channels fail to meet their needs, regardless of what those needs are. They may seek to use those channels when they feel threatened or treated unjustly, to name just a few reasons. When managers do not accept feedback with open arms, employees feel frustrated and are likely to convey this feedback through informal channels. And what most managers do not realize is that this type of feedback is crucial for them to hear in order to have a better understanding and improve their relationships with their employees. In fact, if managers hear this feedback and act on it, it will likely improve employee retention and reduce employee turnover and hiring costs.
Change of attitude is required.
Because in organizations informal communication is often used for gossip and rumors, the attitude towards it can be negative. Yet, it does not have to be. In fact, it can be a powerful tool to identify the root causes of problems that the organization is facing.
Often in companies, there are formal leaders, and there are thought leaders. Thought leaders are actual influencers in the organization, although they do not assume a formal senior role. They are well-respected and heard by almost everyone. Those thought leaders are the most important players when it comes to informal communication. And if managers wish to leverage informal communication in the organization, they should identify those thought leaders, strengthen their relationships with them and listen to them carefully, since they have valuable insights.
While companies need structure and organization to work effectively, this structure needs to accommodate various types of information flow. This structure needs to be solid enough to enable a high level of coordination between all actors involved. It also needs to be flexible enough to allow creative and independent thinking and efficient problem solving. The best organizational structure lies somewhere in between to get the benefits of both characteristics. Therefore, balance is required. Companies that can achieve this balance, such as Google for example, are highly agile, and they are considered the best companies for which to work. Companies, in general, need a high level of transparency to thrive. This transparency cannot be achieved without incorporating informal communication and leveraging it to aid in group decision-making.