Inefficient team communication can be costly. For some companies, it can result in tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue. It also creates ongoing bottlenecks, slows production, and puts up barriers to true collaboration.
On the flip side, efficient communication is fast and collaborative. The right team members have access to the information they need to move projects forward without hindrance. Teams feel more unified and confident to do their job with excellence. The work environment is healthy and efficient, and caters to every team member's strengths.
Efficient communication like this is often diagonal and it flows freely across departments and hierarchies.
If you want to learn how to improve your team's efficiency and speed, reduce communication distortion (we'll explain this later), and give your employees the freedom to access critical information fast, read on. We'll discuss what diagonal communication is, why it's essential (the benefits), and how to navigate the complexities and challenges with ease.
What is diagonal communication?
To understand diagonal communication, we first need to explain the other two communication types: vertical and horizontal.
Vertical communication flows from employee to management (upward) and from management to the employee (downward). It's a top-down or bottom-up type of communication.
Downward communication: The CEO makes a company-wide announcement on new client acquisitions and the potential growth and impact on the company.
Upward communication: An employee presents feedback to management to inform them of potential issues or problems that need attention.
Horizontal or lateral communication occurs between employees at the same hierarchical level for coordination and planning purposes. If your startup is developing an app, you might call a meeting with leads from the sales and marketing team and the design and development team to provide input and different perspectives as you collaborate toward a common goal.
Diagonal communication reaches all teams and hierarchical levels and doesn't create any barriers to company-wide collaboration. A software developer in the technical department could communicate with the vice president of marketing without hesitation or concern.
What does diagonal business communication look like?
- A customer support associate asks the development team manager when the software updates will become available because customers are asking.
- A sales copywriter interviews the marketing director to unearth customer data and behavior to strengthen the copy.
- The product development lead reaches out to customer support representatives to better understand customer pain points to inform new product creation.
The benefits and advantages of diagonal communication
Is it even beneficial for you to encourage diagonal communication? We think so! Let's discuss some benefits of adopting a culture where diagonal communication is encouraged and celebrated.
Enhances teamwork and collaboration
When the exchange of information crosses siloed departments and organizational structures, employees have access to information that would not otherwise have been available had departments kept their knowledge to themselves. Teamwork allows employees to do their jobs with ease — without having to jump over unnecessary communication hurdles.
In company cultures that encourage diagonal communication, employees also feel more confident approaching management, and managers open their doors to collaboration, which builds trust and strengthens relationships. The focus is on sharing information and transparency regardless of the reporting relationships, which fosters collaboration and teamwork.
Improves speed and efficiency
Diagonal communication allows the flow of information to happen freely and without hindrance or distractions.
Let's say an employee who works as a software engineer is working on a product improvement. He has questions about how customers interact with the software so he wants to connect with someone in the marketing department who has relevant data. If diagonal communication were not a part of the company culture, this employee would need to discuss it with his superior and then wait for that person to communicate it to the correct point of contact. This workflow becomes inefficient and could create bottlenecks that threaten deadlines.
Diagonal communication facilitates efficient workflows that prevent in-person and digital distractions. Work productively and get the information you need in the fastest time possible.
Increases employee engagement and job satisfaction
In an environment that encourages people to communicate diagonally, employees are confident they can do their jobs with excellence because they have the freedom to communicate effectively. Since they can freely access the information they need without hesitation, they're more engaged with their work and satisfied with their day-to-day responsibilities. In fact, both employees and leaders are empowered as barriers to collaboration come down.
Diagonal communication also goes hand in hand with horizontal leadership. Horizontal leaders give all employees an active voice and include them in the company's workings. Horizontal leaders encourage diagonal communication because it makes employees more engaged and confident that they can do their best work.
Minimizes communication distortion
Have you ever heard of the game "Telephone"?
A group of people sit in a circle, and one person makes up a phrase or sentence. One by one, each person secretly tells the next person in line the phrase in their ear until the last person in the circle hears it. The last person says the statement out loud. You know what? Nine times out of 10, the final phrase is entirely different from the original.
If you've ever played the game, you know that the more people in the circle, the more distorted the phrase becomes after it reaches the final person.
Similarly, the more people involved in a stream of workplace communication, the higher the chance of distortion and misinterpretation. Diagonal communication removes the intermediaries and keeps the messaging intact throughout the exchange.
The challenges and disadvantages of diagonal communication
Is your team ready to start communicating diagonally?
Diagonal communication is highly beneficial to organizations, but it can be challenging to adapt to your company culture, mainly if your team is not used to this communication style. Let's talk about the two main challenges or obstacles companies typically must overcome when incorporating diagonal communication into their company culture.
Dependent on healthy working environments
If your working environments tend toward hostility and competitiveness, you will have difficulty adapting to a diagonal communication style. Diagonal communication requires trust and healthy business relationships. For diagonal communication to work, all team members must be transparent and not willfully conceal or withhold information for competitive purposes.
It may leave key people out of discussions
If an employee engages in cross-functional communication and doesn't inform their team lead or stakeholders, it could create confusion and keep information siloed. Critical stakeholders will also miss out on crucial information, which could delay a project's progress.
How to encourage diagonal communication and remove the barriers to success
Keep employees in the loop
We discussed the challenge of maintaining open conversations and keeping the right stakeholders informed of critical communication. Here are some tips on how to overcome this hurdle. Thankfully, it's not that difficult!
Establish a chain of command with messaging where communication involves direct superiors and anyone with a stake in the project.
A simple cc to the direct manager or lead on cross-functional communication will solve many potential problems. For example, suppose a developer wants to contact customer service to learn about customer pain points with the software. In that case, they should cc the customer service lead and the development manager to keep them in the loop.
Watch out for bottlenecks, however, when team members get stuck on which stakeholders to invite to the conversation. Here are some tips to help employees tag the right stakeholders in company communication:
- Set up a weekly standup in a transparent communication channel like Slack to help team members identify stakeholders who may not have been cc'd on the original communication.
- When sending cross-functional email correspondence, ask recipients if you should add anyone else to the contact list to encourage transparency.
- Create a brief workflow that outlines general diagonal communication tips. For example, if you're messaging a colleague about sensitive information (customer data, financial figures, etc.), cc the department head so they are aware of any data sharing and can contribute to the conversation, if needed, to avoid any bottlenecks. We talk about how to create workflows and guides in a future section.
We discussed how unhealthy working environments are not conducive to communicating diagonally. One way to keep working environments healthy is to address barriers to communication and foster an environment of trust and transparency.
People in different departments might not communicate the same or share your interests and skills. Before you speak to team members in other departments or colleagues on different levels, take a step back and consider how they might perceive your words.
- Clarity: Be clear in your communication and avoid super technical words only your department might understand. For example, a customer service representative might not understand what the marketing lead means when they ask a question that includes the term CTR. Meanwhile, a marketing lead might not understand what accounting means when they refer to FE vs. VE.
- Active vs. selective listening: Be aware if you're engaging in selective listening as you might be tuning out important information. Stay active and engage in the conversation to extract all necessary details and avoid asking the recipient the same questions again.
- Linguistic differences: Pay attention to linguistic differences such as differing dialects and language barriers. If language is an impediment, consider email communication instead of face-to-face.
- Ask questions: If you don't understand something, ask enough questions to get the necessary information.
- Alignment: Ensure your team uses the same communication type so everyone stays on the same page. We recommend email for most meeting syncs so you can cc all stakeholders and employees will have a written record of the conversations to refer back to.
Define communication workflows
Define answers to FAQs and create guidelines for employees when they communicate outside of a department, whether to a colleague or a department lead or manager.
- Instruct your team on how to write effective emails to achieve buy-in and keep recipients engaged and responsive.
- Create communication processes or workflows to instruct team members on the proposed methods and tools to use when contacting team members outside of their department.
- Gather the workflows into a communications guide to make it easy for your team to access.
If you want to learn how to create your own communications guide for your team that reflects your company values, download our Guidebook to Communication for Hybrid Teams. Get access to templates and learn a few pointers from Superhuman's internal guide as well!
Efficient and free-flowing communication requires the right tools
Email is one of the strongest and most effective ways to communicate diagonally. It keeps communication transparent with a written record of conversations so employees can easily keep stakeholders in the loop to prevent any barriers to a project's progress.
Email is also efficient and organized, so it's easy to find past conversations and follow up on important emails.
But managing a busy inbox (personally and professionally) comes with its challenges. Maybe you struggle with sleeping at night because you're worried about forgetting to reply to important emails. Or you haven't been able to enjoy a work/life balance, and getting tangled in a chaotic inbox is robbing too much of your time.
Your email management shouldn't have to compete with your priorities and deadlines. It should work as fast as you need it to, and complement your current techstack.
Superhuman can help and give you peace of mind. Face the day with a zeroed out inbox and never miss out on another opportunity because you didn't have enough time to get through your email.
With Superhuman, you and your team can work faster and more efficiently. Get through your inbox twice as fast and prioritize like a pro — automate triage so it happens while you sleep! Increase your response time and never block your team or miss out on important emails again.
Get started with Superhuman today and get your team communicating in the fastest way possible. Prioritize your inbox so you can finally focus on what really matters.