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Collaboration

What is diagonal communication?

Help boost workplace productivity by learning how to implement this often-overlooked business communication style

By the team at SlackNovember 19th, 2021

Business communication includes all types of dialogue and information sharing among colleagues. You’re probably already familiar with vertical communication, which flows up or down between different levels of the corporate hierarchy. And then there’s horizontal communication, which happens between employees at the same level, whether or not they’re in the same departments. But you might not know about diagonal communication, which involves people on different teams across all positions—and can supercharge your workplace productivity.

The benefits of diagonal communication

Diagonal communication is a sort of hybrid between vertical and horizontal communication. It’s a direct dialogue between employees of differing ranks who are not in the same chain of command. For example, a software developer might collaborate with a marketing manager to better understand product needs and positioning.

Diagonal communication offers quite a few benefits for organizations and team members. Here are a few advantages.

Collaboration

These days, organizational effectiveness increasingly relies on redefining company culture. And collaboration is the name of the game. Gone are the days of rigidly siloed departments that duplicate efforts and rarely communicate. Cross-departmental collaboration has become essential for success. You might already be working on this through horizontal communication, encouraging employees to speak with peers in other departments. But diagonal communication takes collaboration to the next level, allowing workers to seek answers directly from those most likely to have them.

Hierarchy changes within projects or work groups

Beyond tearing down silos, the most successful companies are also collapsing their hierarchies. This can lead to higher worker satisfaction as employees begin to feel more engaged. Yes, someone needs to be in charge at every level. But management shouldn’t be unreachable.

Going back to the earlier example, a software developer following a strict hierarchical process would reach out to her manager, who would then contact the same-level manager in the marketing department, who might need to take the questions to his superior. Eventually, the information would come back to the developer, who might have put the project on hold. Now both the questions and answers must be filtered through an intermediary. Diagonal communication skips over the hierarchy and lets people communicate directly as needed.

Improves efficiency

As you can see from our example, vertical and horizontal communication aren’t always the most efficient. Adding diagonal communication boosts efficiency by removing the artificial structural barriers that can block progress. It’s also potentially more accurate, removing the need to play telephone with relayed and possibly misinterpreted messaging.

Improves speed

Why go through layers to get answers? When questions come up, employees are empowered to go directly to the person who has answers. No need to get bogged down waiting for communication to filter through multiple channels (and there’s that game of telephone, again).

Can improve teamwork

When people work cross-departmentally, they might hesitate to bring their ideas to the table if they don’t fully understand the project scope or know the stakeholders well. Talking with managers builds confidence and connection, making it more comfortable to participate fully and ask insightful questions.

Two colleages talking over water cooler

Challenges of diagonal communication

Of course, like anything else, diagonal communication has its drawbacks. Take these potential pitfalls into account and have a plan to head them off.

Bypasses chain of command

While it can be valuable for workers to take their questions to the source, their direct supervisors also need to know what’s going on. Diagonal communication works best when those involved in the conversation are careful to keep their managers apprised.

Easy for people to be left out of the loop

Most projects involve multiple team members and stakeholders. Diagonal communication can leave certain folks out of the loop, potentially causing them to feel less engaged and unsure what direction to take. Be sure to summarize any decisions and disseminate them to all those who might be affected.

Can lead to inefficiency due to poor communication

Each department tends to have its own jargon, culture and unwritten rules for communication. With diagonal communication, you have to be clear, direct and avoid making assumptions. Otherwise, communication breakdowns lower productivity and turn into wasted time.

Can lead to misunderstandings

Likewise, poor diagonal communication can cause misunderstandings. To minimize this risk, both sides should use active listening techniques like summarizing the other person’s points and asking clarifying questions. At the end of the discussion, recap and confirm any decisions or action items.

Use cases for diagonal communication

Diagonal communication usually happens in cross-departmental collaboration. An employee in one department directly connects with a supervisor in another department. For example, creating a video game involves designers, writers, artists and programmers. But it also requires budget owners, marketers and publishers.

Everyone needs to be on the same page to create a cohesive, well-designed and executed game that comes in on budget and performs to expectations. A writer might want to check with the artistic director to ensure a character’s voice aligns with its look. A designer might work closely with a director to make sure there’s enough money to bring the concept to life. Or someone in marketing might consult with the lead designer on how to brand the game or create upselling functionality.

How to improve diagonal communication

With all the moving parts, diagonal communication can get complex. Every decision affects the entire project. Once a product manager and head of finance agree on the scope of the game, writers, artists and developers need to know about it.

The key to improving diagonal communication is transparency. When possible, use channels that create an ongoing written record for anyone involved. You can bring it all together with a communication platform like Slack, creating different channels for various projects. Slack is also fully integrated with a huge range of collaboration tools, so you can roll in everything from email to project management apps. Just add the relevant stakeholders to each channel, and everyone can collaborate in ways that make sense to them, including diagonally. With a searchable written record of what was said, decisions are documented and nobody’s out of the loop.

Putting it all together

Maintaining a clear, transparent dialogue with an easily accessible written record is the best way to successful diagonal communication. Using a tool like Slack, based on transparency and cross-channel efficiency, is one of the best ways to leverage diagonal communication for efficiency, productivity and stakeholder confidence.

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