Organizational Communication, Informal

Some scholars argue that the informal organization is more powerful than the formal organization. Scholars also suggest that a great deal of communication in organizations is informal communication. Elton Mayo and his famous Hawthorne studies found that informal communication influenced the development and reinforcement of performance standards, member expectations, and values at the work group level. Informal organizational communication consists of episodes of interaction that do not reflect formally designated channels of communication. P. H. Tompkins wrote that informal organizational communication is not rationally specified. An organization may be formally structured with specific communication rules and patterns, such as chain of command; however, that does not mean that all activities and interactions strictly conform to the original formalized organization. A great deal of time and effort is devoted to creating an organization driven by control and predictability through formal means such as employee handbooks, rules, regulations, and procedures and standard means of practices. However, an elaborate setup of organizational mechanisms and contingencies cannot fully predict and control the dynamic and complex nature of human beings and their interactions with other individuals and the environment.

Scholars posit that in every formal organization emerges an informal organization, primarily through communication. Various groups develop their own values, norms, and practices in relation to their peers, subordinates, and supervisors. These practices construct context-specific ways of working beyond the scope of the formal organization. Rules are important in formal organizations, particularly in organizations highly characterized by hierarchy and bureaucracy. Max Weber suggested that the functioning of formal organizations is made possible by five primary characteristics.

  1. There is the principle of fixed and official jurisdictional areas, which are generally ordered by rules, laws, or administrative regulations.
  2. The principles of organizational hierarchy and of levels of graded authority mean a firmly ordered system of superordination and subordination in which there is a supervision of the lower offices by the higher ones.
  3. The management of the formal organization is based on written documents, which are preserved in their original form.
  4. When the organization is fully formalized, official activity demands the full working capacity and attention of management.
  5. Management follows general rules, which are more or less stable, are more or less exhaustive, and can be learned.

The last characteristic suggests that rules should be general to have enough scope to cover a multitude of situations or contingencies. However, not all contingencies can be imagined and prepared for, and informal communication provides a solution to this problem.

Formal versus Informal Organizational Communication

The distinction between formal and informal organizational communication is unclear. Historically, scholars have made interesting theoretical and empirical distinctions between formal and informal communication. Scholars link formal communication with the organizational chart and formalized messages. Researchers also link informal organizational communication with the grapevine (addressed later) and communications not considered on the formal organizational chart. Scholars have attempted to distinguish formal and informal communication, but the lines are not clearly drawn. Conceptually, however, formal communication is viewed as expected communication patterns that are written, centralized, vertical, planned, imposed, and mandated. Formal communication is viewed as legitimate communication given authority by the organization. However, informal communication is viewed as actual communication patterns that are oral, decentralized, horizontal, unplanned and not imposed, and not mandated.

There have been several attempts to link formal organizational structure to organizational behavior. However, these attempts have produced inconclusive findings. Because of this lack of evidence, scholars have suggested that studying informal communication will contribute to our understanding of organizational behavior.

Why study informal communication?

Informal communication in organizations is an important area of inquiry in organizational theory and behavior. It is particularly useful when studying the role of informal communication in decision making, productivity, and organizational change.

There are three primary reasons informal organizational communication continues to thrive. First, decision making does not operate in a vacuum, and many times decisions must be made that fall outside the purview of the formal organizational design. Reacting in the moment allows immediate and flexible solutions that may not wait on a formalized process that may take a considerable amount of time to implement.

Second, unofficial norms may develop to regulate performance and productivity. For example, systematic soldering resulted from rate busting in the early industrial revolution era when a group of workers would pressure each other to keep productivity at a steady pace by not working too hard and fast or too slowly, to keep the rate of piecework pay the same. This pressure was placed on all workers by their peers through informal policing of productivity.

Finally, as the complex nature of social relations and informal status structures emerge, organizational change provides an important backdrop for promoting informal organizational communication. Informal organizational communication develops in response to opportunities and problems posed by the environment, whereas formal organizational communication is a response to the immediate environment of the groups within it.

Organizations are influenced by factors other than the traditional organizational chart. Informal factors such as background, demographic characteristics, workers’ abilities, their willingness to help others, and their degree of conformity to group norms all shape informal organizational communication.

Traditional Formal Communication

Traditional scholars of organizational communication made no allowances for the role of informal communication in organizational functions and its influence on the organization. This was in part because of a reliance on the idea that all organizational messages should always exhibit the two characteristics of intelligibility and persuasion. Intelligible messages mean that the message should be clear and concise. Persuasive messages indicate that the average human needs coaxing to perform tasks in the interests of the organization. To better motivate and control the worker in the interest of the organization, the task goals should be communicated in such a way that it appears to serve the interest of the worker.

Informal Communication Perspectives

There are two predominant views on informal communication. Some scholars argue that informal communication arises when information transmitted through the formal organization is either insufficient or ambiguous. In this sense, informal communication is used for clarity. Other scholars suggest that informal communication is much more than a surrogate from an incomplete formal system. Instead, informal communication is an inherent and even necessary aspect of organizational life. Most organizational communication researchers agree that some informal communication is inevitable in organizational life, regardless of the form the organization may take.

Grapevine Communication

A great deal of the research on informal organizational communication centers on the study of grapevine communication. Grapevine communication is a metaphor for a communication system that began in the 1860s during the Civil War in America as a description for telegraph lines that were strung through trees, resembling grapevines. This early system was neither stable nor reliable, so the term was coined for any form of communication outside the purview of formalized organizational communication.

The flow of information in grapevine communication can be complex. Some organizational members who participate in the grapevine act only as receivers of the message. These participants do not relay information to other organizational members. However, there are certain organizational members who serve as both senders and receivers of a message to other organizational members.

There are five areas of study of grapevine communication:

  1. The function and extent of grapevine communication: The grapevine emerges from the social and personal interests of employees rather than from formalized organizational communication. This approach is more people oriented than task oriented.
  2. Participants in grapevine communication: This studies the participants and their roles in grapevine communication. Secretaries and liaisons play critical roles in grapevine communication. Managers and other organizational members play a role in informal communication.
  3. Patterns and media of grapevine communication: Grapevine communication is generally oral and presented in interpersonal and group contexts. The communication may begin, flow, and end anywhere in the organization.
  4. Volume, speed, and reliability of information: The diffusion of grapevine information is rapid and the information is more accurate than inaccurate. However, most grapevine communication is incomplete.
  5. Role in rumor transmission: Three types of rumors are spread through the grapevine: anxiety rumors (associated with perceived negative change such as layoffs), wish-fulfillment rumors (associated with salary increase or promotions), and wedge-driving rumors (once a rumor is assigned credibility, events are altered to fit in with and support the rumor).

Research on grapevine communication suggests that a great deal of organizational communication occurs through the grapevine. The grapevine serves as a rumor mill; however, only a small portion of the communication consists of rumors. There are no demographic (male vs. female) or status (managers vs. employees) differences among grapevine participants.

Current Research in Informal Organizational Communication

Research in the area of informal organizational communication has splintered from the traditional views of informal communication of examining grapevine communication to situating informal communication in various organizational structures. For example, the increased use of computer-mediated technology and communication systems has created research lines that compare the traditional organizational structure driven by formal communication with informal or emergent communication created by mediated communication. J. D. Eveland and Tora Bikson (1987) found that electronic mail served to augment, and in some cases complement, formal structures. Other scholars have shown that informal organizational communication that naturally emerges from communication technology in a sense is becoming more formalized as organizations attempt to extend control beyond time and spatial constraints characteristic of formal organizational communication.

Other streams of research include Pamela Hinds and Sara Kiesler’s (1995) work that found that communication technologies were used as a tool for lateral communication across formal organizational boundaries. In another study, R. E. Rice (1994) found that electronic communication structures closely resembled formal organizational structures initially, but these similarities diminished over time. In sum, the current literature focuses on the advantages of informal communication to individuals and organizations.


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