Formal and Informal Communication Channels

Channel of Communication refers to the means through which a message is communicated. A communication may pass through various points or positions in an organization. Depending upon the means, structure and nature of communication, channels can be categorized into formal and informal communication channels. Irrespective of the mode of communication, people can communicate in a formal or informal manner.

Formal Communication

A formal channel of communication is usually controlled by managers or people who lie in the top hierarchy in an organization. It is an official channel that is deliberately structured to form a communication chain in and organization to achieve organization goals. Information that flows through formal channels is accurate, authentic and legally valid. Formal Communication involves memos, reports, letters, orders, instructions etc. that flow up and down the hierarchical system in an organization and presentations, advertising and branding materials that are presented to the public.  

Features of Formal Communication

Formal communication, as the very name represents, happens between superiors and their reporting staff in organizations. It may be in oral or written from. Meetings that happen inside the office space between the Top Management are typically formal in nature. Formal Communication happens between the representatives of an organization and its customers. Formal Communication also includes flyers and branding material prepared by an organization to communicate information pertaining to its services to the outer world. Dedicated team of professionals plan and execute communication tasks pertaining to advertising or branding which act as the face of the organization.

Advantages of Formal Communication

  1. Formal communication lifts up the image of organizations in a professional manner.

  2. It empowers employees at managerial positions with decision making and strategy development

  3. The high level of responsibility formal communication creates improves productivity at various levels in multifold ways

  4. Formal Communication ensures that the complete organization is kept intact as a single entity irrespective of the distance between employees, managers, departments, branches etc.

Disadvantages of Formal Communication

  1. Formal communication involves hierarchy in communication

  2. Following a hierarchy makes the communication task a time consuming one

  3. Owing to its nature, Formal Communication does not allow free flow of information

  4. Formal Communication involves certain set of activities which add cost along with the stringent practices

  5. Due to the hierarchy involved in formal communication, human touch between the top level and the lower levels ceases to exist in many organizations

Informal Communication

Informal channel of communication is an unofficial and unstructured channel which is not prescribed by the organization but exists due to personal and social needs of people working in an organization. Information that passes through informal means is not official but may be merely rumors or gossips. Informal communication chain that exists within an organization is also known as grapevine. A grapevine is created and controlled by the people within the organization and follows no specific rules or regulations. Information through grapevines spread very fast and flows in every direction.

Features of Informal Communication

  1. Informal Communication prevails more in the middle and lower rings of the organizations

  2. Informal Communication takes place between people in an organization due to their personal , social or professional needs

  3. Informal Communication usually spreads and discusses rumors that have no basis

  4. Informal Communication, at times, may have some crucial information useful to Management

  5. Informal Communication has no fixed standards or guidelines but happens in a haphazard manner in organizations

  6. Owing to the nature of the same, Informal Communication is considered unofficial and casual

Factors fostering Informal Communication

Formal and Informal Communication may take place between individuals for various reasons. Informal Communication usually takes place due to the influence of various factors that are more emotional and psychological in nature. Some factors that foster Informal Communication in a typical office environment are:

  1. Low Confidence – Low self confidence levels of Employees makes them form a group and cling on to the same so they feel at ease

  2. Low Efficiency – Lack of efficiency in Employees makes them afraid to handle situations and people. They seek support in peer group where similar people look for Company. This results in the formation of Grapevine groups who talk things just to satisfy themselves

  3. Lack of Direction – When employees lack direction, the uncertain feeling that is created among them leads to gossips fostering Grapevines

  4. Psychological Issues – Psychological imbalances caused due to the fear of losing job acts as one of the major factors in the formation of Grapevines. This is mainly due to the feeling of safety that such group formation offers to all in the group.

Pitfalls of Grapevine

  1. Most of the information spread in the official environment by Grapevines is undependable.

  2. Even when the Grapevines try to leak out official information, such information tends to be half baked and incomplete. When incomplete information spreads out among the employees, it gives rise to all sorts of ambiguities spoiling the peace in the environment

  3. Grapevines tend to spoil not only the image of individuals but also of the whole organization by spreading rumors that have no valid basis.

Despite the pitfalls mentioned above, Grapevines can be used in an effective manner if appropriate measures are taken by the Top Management. It is wise to understand that Grapevines are indispensable, hence the management must take appropriate measures to exert some control over the information spread through grapevines. To put it in a nutshell, Grapevines can be used to spread information that the management wants to be spread in an unofficial manner from time to time

Tips for using Grapevines in an effective manner

  1. Conduct group events and meeting frequently to increase worth of Employees so they don’t feel the need to act through Grapevines

  2. Keeping all employees well informed about the plans for the present and future so nothing is left for imagination

  3. Employees must have easy access to Managers so they don’t get the feeling of being kept at dark about things

  4. Managers must be able to create positive relationships with the so-called leaders among the Grapevines so that they get updated information about the happenings at all points of time

  5. Managers must casually interact with employees about any personal or official issues faced by them so that they do not seek help through Grapevine

  6. The Manager should take genuine efforts to change his own style if required taking periodical feedback from the sub-ordinates reporting to him. This will avoid people from gossiping in the Grapevine

  7. Managers as well as the Management must send out clear signals that rumors that may act as character assassination are strictly prohibited

  8. Managers must groom their listening skills so they are able to listen to the employees reporting to them in an empathetic manner. This will act as a draining out activity for Employees stopping them from becoming an active part of a Grapevine

Difference Between Formal and Informal Communication Channels

Formal and Informal Communication

Picture Credits: Distinction between Formal and Informal Channels – Business Communication – R.C. Bhatia

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