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Why We Need Horizontal and Vertical Communications

As a university program director teaching emergency management, I work with many individuals who are new to the field. It almost never fails that someone asks me what the most important thing they need to know is. While I am not sure there is one answer, a good one has to be, communications. One of the most important issues that you will ever encounter as an emergency manager is communications.

The tricky part of communications is that it is a very large concept with multiple subsets. While one might initially think the issues are largely horizontal or dealing with pushing their message out to the public. I would argue that an effective EM must also know how to communicate vertically, or to those who work either for us or to those we answer to.

Horizontal communication is the transmission of information between people, divisions, departments or units at the same level. Some insist that this occurs exclusively within an organizational hierarchy, but I think it is larger than that. Horizontal communication decreases misunderstanding, increasing efficiency and productivity. Horizontal communication facilitates teamwork if a project requires tasks from different people or groups.[1] Horizontal communication is not all good. It comes with some disadvantages like maintaining message control. If everyone is working at the same level there is often no one with final say on what is communicated.

Utilizing a vertical communication system helps control the flow of information and decision-making. As I mentioned above, you cannot risk wrong messaging. The policies and goals of any organization typically come from the top and move down through the chain of command. Communication that flows upward typically involves information from the front lines to the executives about what is going on at the lower levels. When you consider the incident command system (ICS) the policy group sitting at the top of the heap is who sets policies, signs the checks, etc. A major disadvantage of vertical communication is that information often gets filtered as it moves up and down the chain of command, watering down the message or changing the nature of the information. Your direct supervisor may not understand the message as well as you, and in an attempt to clarify it, actually clouds it up. Managers receiving a request directed to upper management may decide that the request isn't even valid and slow its motion or stop it altogether.[2]

Communication is vital. Whether it’s with those we work with, or those we work for, we need to learn how to do it better. You cannot risk the wrong message getting out, because the work we do might just be life and death.



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