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Downward Communication


Disciplines > Communication > Organizational Communication > Downward Communication

Job instruction | Rationale | Policies and procedures | Appraisal | Indoctrination | See also


Within organizations, communication with employees is important in order to ensure they know what is expected of them and are able to ask questions and give useful feedback.

Whilst communication happens in many ways, the basic communication in a hierarchical organization is downwards, from manager to subordinate. Katz and Kahn (1978) describe five types of common downward communications, as below.

Job instruction

The employee needs to know what is expected of them in terms of their performance. Most jobs have a job description. There may also be process details and, with lower skill activity, detailed instructions. Then there are the various tools of the job that the person must know how to use correctly.

Job instructions should be linked to corporate strategy through a downward cascade of objectives.

Typically the job instruction is given on starting the job and then in coaching and support along the way.


As well as telling employees what to do, the reason for doing is also very helpful to communicate. This provides some motivation and also gives clues for when decisions need to be made. If you know the higher purpose, then you can make intelligent choices.

The rationale for why things are done as they are is important if the person has done things differently in the past. Providing this reasoning early also keeps the person on the 'straight and narrow' in doing things as they should.

Policies and procedures

In a broader sense, there are always a number of policies, procedures and so on that apply to everyone, from company security policies to how to apply for time off for holidays. These include rules that must be followed and various reward and benefit systems.

These are often owned by infrastructure groups such as HR, Finance, IT, etc. who update and administer them on a regular basis.

There are often many of these rules and processes, and it is easy not to know them. Key instruction may be given when the person joins. Updates may be regularly given to all. Otherwise learning these can be a social process, with informal as well as formal direction from managers and workmates.

Changing strategy often results in changes in policies and procedures. When these change there needs to be a careful communication of the changes and consequent impact.


Managers should regularly give their subordinates feedback on how they are doing, praising good performance and correcting wrong or inadequate actions.

There is often a formal system of regular performance management with meetings in which forms are completed to cover assessment of past performance and laying out of future objectives. This may include plans for training and other education.

A good appraisal is motivating and gives the employee a clear direction forward. A critical appraisal can result in less pay increase, job change or even dismissal.


A surprising amount of formal and subtle communication is about ideological matters, such as company values, vision, strategic goals and so on.

As with the rationale communication, this is about changing the person to deeply associate with the company and increase their loyalty, as well as help them make sound decisions on a daily basis.

A significant amount of indoctrination happens when a person joins the organization to ensure they understand both written and unwritten rules. Ongoing indoctrination keeps people aligned with the organization and each other, helping to smooth conversations and keep everyone focused in the right way.

Problems in downward communication

Communicating to employees can seem relatively straightforward, yet it is plagued with problems in many companies. The most common trap is assuming that once you have told everyone something, they will both understand exactly what you mean and remember it forever. In practice, people will ignore, misunderstand, misinterpret, forget and generally make you feel that it was hardly worth the effort.

Problems can also happen when information is cascaded, for example where managers are told something to tell their people. In many organizations, few will communicate exactly as requested. Some will shorten, some will edit and others will ignore the communication altogether.

Secrets of success with downward communication include using multiple channels and testing.

Using multiple channels include announcements in meetings, web information, magazines, posters on notice boards and so on. People have their preferred ways of learning an the more ways you communicate, the more people will get the message. The repetition effect also helps hammer home the point.

Check that what has been said has been heard and understood. Ask people immediately what they have understood by what you have communicated. Check later also to see if they have remembered it. And if you are seeking a change in how they behave then watch for these.

See also

Propaganda, Conversion techniques, Alignment principle, Performance Management


D. Katz and R. L. Kahn (1978) The Social Psychology of Organizations. John Wiley and Sons


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