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Communication in Organizations – Cultures and Directions

Business, Intercultural Competence




“The information is in the people, not in your head.” – Edward T. Hall


In this post I want to take a closer look at communication in organizations by looking at two elements: The participants and the hierarchical structure of the company. These two aspects strongly influence differences in negotiation, agreement and decision-making processes. For multicultural organizations, the right form of communication is the key to success. Knowing how people communicate differently and how their perception of the chain of command is influencing their interaction style can eliminate many major steppingstones.


To frame the differences between the participants we will, just as in my last post, look at how their cultural heritage can diverge. For this purpose, firstly, the cultural taxonomies of Edward T. Hall, the founder of cultural sciences as part of communication sciences, will be highlighted. Secondly, to identify the hierarchy of an organization, we will analyze the possible communication directions, their purposes and implications.


Key Take Aways


  1. Cultures differ in the way they communicate. The differentiation is the amount of implicit knowledge required for effective communication, called context.
  2. Low-Context Cultures are more direct in their communication without using much subtext. High-Context Cultures require a lot of previous knowledge and rely on the setting to explain things.
  3. The three forms of communication directions (Upward, downward & horizontal) define the purpose and importance of a message.


High-Context und Low-Context Cultures


E. T. Hall is the pioneer of cultural studies and my favorite scientist because he is gifted to explain something complex in an easily digestible way, which explains his motivation for creating his model: It should be useful for people “in the field” who need to communicate with people from other cultures regularly (Rogers, Hart & Mike, 2002).


For him, cultures differ in the way they communicate and how direct communication is. Everything depends on the context. The interpersonal, micro-level when communicating is central. Awareness and the importance of things are contextual. Culture gives the frame for the context. From the setting it can be separated between two groups: high-context and low-context cultures (HCCs and LCCs). They represent the extreme ends on a continuum and every culture can be found somewhere on this line. Therefore, also all descriptions of the context intensity, are only relative to the other ones. For example, compared to Japan, Guatemala is LCC, but Germany is itself LCC compared to Guatemala.


LCCs are mainly found in Western and Northern Europe, Australia and North America. Communication is direct and does not contain much subtext. Information is explicitly communicated. They are individualistic and need unambiguous rules and norms.

On the other extreme, HCCs rely on nonverbal communication, like body language, tone or what has not been said. Much of the information is transferred implicitly through the setting. They live in well-structured social hierarchies; the context strongly influences the meaning people take from communication and the way words are said is more important than the words themselves. HCCs are often collectivistic and appear mostly in racial monogenous societies (Würtz, 2005). The society with the highest amount of context are China and Japan.




As there is a strong correlation between context and collectivism, the more contextual a culture is, the more likely it will also be collectivistic and vice versa. Collectivistic cultures have a higher commitment to relationships, also because many of them happen in the extended family network. Hence, they are born into their in-group. Their social and family ties define their close relationships. LCCs tend to explain things further and need more explicit communication. It is thought that this may be related to the need to accommodate individuals with a wide variety of backgrounds. With increasingly different origins, implicit knowledge decreases because less is available and transferable (Hall, 1989). Their in-groups are selected and people in it may only be part of it for a limited time. Relationships are thus less stable, more flexible and represent the individual’s current preferences.


Another implication of the need for less explicitness, is the increased communication speed. Since more things are obvious, less things need to be said. On the other hand, more time needs to be invested for learning these codes. One needs to spend more time learning about the culture, to understand it, which also creates entry barriers for others. This correlates again with an increased value and stability of tradition in HCCs, such as in Japan. On the other hand, with the need to be clearer, LCCs can easily create information overload, as seen in many terms and conditions agreements online. Information overload takes place once the amount of information surpasses the comprehension capacity.


The direction of communication reflects the structure of the company. Furthermore, it shows how hierarchy and relationships form the intention and purpose of communication. The form of communication highlights the relationships between sender and receiver. To understand how information is passed around one must look, at the three directions: downward, upward and lateral communication (Katz & Kahn, 1966).


Downward communication describes the process, when somebody in a higher hierarchical position is the source and someone on a lower level is the receiver of a message. Like when your boss is telling you something. The intention is to give instructions, define goals, indoctrinate, provide feedback or explain reasons. Therefore, top-to-bottom communication mostly uses formal channels (e-mail, briefings, etc.) to ensure that the message has been received and to make the instructions official. Hereby it is critical to know which channel the best transmitter for the desired goal is and how many receivers are necessary.


Respectively, upward communication takes place when someone is sending a message to another further up in the hierarchy. Goal is to inform one’s superior about status and progress of projects and to provide feedback on policies, procedures or the working environment. Again, the receiver is primarily passive and formal channels are used to communicate (Katz & Kahn, 1966).


When people on the same hierarchical level are communicating with each other, it is called lateral communication. It functions to exchange knowledge, satisfy social needs and to organize and speed-up decision making processes in an informal manner. Lateral communication serves as a vent for employees and can reduce the workload for the manager, but if it exceeds a threshold, the manager is not consulted anymore and bypassed in important decisions, it creates difficulties. The desired degree of informal lateral communication depends on the organization, the trust in the employees and the leadership style, which is include cultural considerations.


Intercultural Communication and Directions at effective


The communication direction within our company is already described by the team structures: As a digital marketing agency, we fall into the same category as other technology companies such as Google or Amazon. The hierarchy is flat; formally three levels exist: Consultants, project managers and account managers. The main contact person to the customer is the consultant, represented by a member of the C-level. The project manager is the internal coordinator for the account managers and, if necessary, the spokesperson for task-related, as well as specific channel-related issues. The account managers are our administrative organs.


Upward communication goes from account manager to consultant, giving recommendations each on their individual levels. But as the roles between account managers and projects managers can switch, the knowledge exchange between them cannot be hierarchical. The important function of the project manager is to funnel the different recommendations of the account managers about a specific customer and give it to the consultant, so she can pass it on and does not receive too much information. It is less about internal roles, status or authority but an efficiency measure. Vice versa it is her job to create specific tasks for the account managers derived from the goals from the consultant. The three-level approach ensures a control instance for the two main issues with up- and downward communication, accuracy and adequacy (Dovak, 2007). It gives the consultant security that the goals have been understood and can be reached, for the account managers that their concerns are met in the same way.


Lateral communication takes place between all employees below the consultant level and between all consultants. One reason is the influential power. No project manager has any power or can directly influence the account manager’s career. The project managers are information handlers and coordinators. More responsibilities are given upon expertise and continuous proving of effective personal skills, again favoring LCCs. Lateral communication serves to inform each other about the status of the own respective task, help in solving problems and influence each other or together the consultants. Even more, the clearly defined infrastructure, the focus on the customers’ needs and changing roles disable inter- and intra-departmental competition, favoring the big in-group definition of HCCs. This also shows how the team communication is directly related to our organizational culture. As our company is so small and the team spirit is shared with the whole company, the two are strongly interrelated. This enhances the egalitarian structure within effective and diminishes status-assigned discrimination. It underlines the LCC elements in our company and enhances the flow of information because everybody feels as if they can contribute something valuable.




Now we have laid out the principles and how they affect the structure of the company. Stay tuned for my next post, in which I will analyze possible conflicts and their resolutions based on this framework.




Hall, E. T. (1989). Beyond Culture (2nd ed.). New York: Anchor Books.

Hall, E. T., & Hall, M. R. (2014). Understanding cultural differences. Boston, MA: Intercultural Press.

Katz, D., & Kahn, R. L. (1966). The social psychology of organizations. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Lustig, M. W., & Koester, J. (2013). Intercultural Competence - Interpersonal Communication across Cultures (7th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson Education.