During the orientation process of the available literature, we identified the following interventions as most plausible for communication in employment disputes:
“The role of internal communication in shaping organizational culture has been widely recognized by management communication and public relations scholars”…(as cited in Men and Yue 2019, p.1). “It is through internal communication that organizational leaders shape and transmit values and missions of the organization to employees and therefore involve employees in fulfilling bigger organizational purposes” (Mayfield & Mayfield, 2018; Welch, 2011) (as cited in Men and Yue 2019, p.3). It enhances employee engagement, commitment, and performance (Lee and Kim 2021, p.1). Public relations literature widely recognised symmetrical internal communication as instrumental in supporting employee-organisation relationships (Men and Jiang 2016).
Given the intervention’s suitability in regulating employer-employee relationship, in this recommendation, we will compare symmetrical and asymmetrical communication.
Symmetrical internal communication
Asymmetrical internal communication
For parties looking to prevent or resolve an employment dispute, where the employer and employee want to recognise emotions, needs and interests, is symmetrical internal communication or asymmetrical internal communication more effective for well-being?
The databases used are: Elsevier, Sage Publications, Springer, Routledge
For this PICO question, keywords used in the search strategy are: employee engagement, top-down communication, upwards feedback, asymmetrical communication, employees feeling unheard, internal communication
Quality of evidence and research gap
According to our research method, we grade the evidence comparing symmetrical and asymmetrical communication as low. There exists a large amount of empirical research on this topic. However, the majority of this research has been conducted in Western countries. As a result, how social norms around relationships between subordinates and superiors affect communication styles and overall employer-employee relationship is not accounted for.
Symmetrical internal communication
Asymmetrical internal communication
Employees experience positive emotions such as joy and gratitude when two way communication is used in the organisation. An online survey of 506 employees based in the USA working across 19 sectors shows that “corporate symmetrical communication demonstrated a strong positive effect on organizational positive culture (β = .75, p < .001), indicating that a positive culture of companionate love, joy, pride, and gratitude is likely nurtured when organizations’ communication system and climate are two-way; symmetrical...”(Men and Yue 2019, p.7).
Top down communication helps employees to identify and own the goals, objectives and culture of the organisation. It increases their sense of belonging. “Smidts et al argue that extensive top-down communication and use of multiple channels of communication are likely to increase organisational identification, with positive consequences for self-esteem, organisational commitment and co-operative behaviour”.
“…employees feel more satisfied with an organization that employs a communication system that is open, two-way, and responsive, addresses employee opinions and concerns, and boosts mutual understanding, collaboration, and dialogue” (Men 2014, p.269).
One way communication helps in clarifying procedures and practices to employees. “In large organizations, organizational procedures are usually subject to an organizational manual or a staff manual, listing details of which actions should be respected and taken into account in certain situations” (Qerimi 2018, 79).
Two way communication is very effective as it provides an opportunity for informal communication between employees and managers. Argenti (1998) also argued that the most effective internal communication is two-way communication because it provides an opportunity for informal interaction between employees and managers (Mishra, Boynton and Mishra 2014, p.187).
One way communication helps in providing employees “job instructions or recommendations about how to perform tasks” (Qerimi 2018, p.79). This ensures that tasks are completed efficiently which is beneficial for the organisation. At the same time, it instills confidence among employees about their own abilities.
Symmetrical internal communication improves employer-organisation relationship. Empirical research has shown that symmetrical internal communication contributes to the achievement of organizational goals by engaging employees at different levels and enhancing employee outcomes such as organizational identification (Smidts, Pruyn, & Van Riel, 2001), empowerment (Liden, Wayne, & Sparrowe, 2000), trust (Jo & Shim, 2005), and employee-organization relationships (Lee, 2018; Kim & Rhee, 2011) (as cited in Kim and Lee 2020, p.2). A quantitative online survey of 391 employees in medium and large organisations in the USA spread across 17 industry sectors shows “that employees develop a better relationship with an organization with an open, inviting, and a responsive communicating system, which places value on employee opinions and feedback and boosts collaboration, dialogue, and mutual understanding between an organization and its employees (Men, 2014b)” (Men and Jiang 2016, p.467). A study conducted with 438 employees in a South Korean cosmetics firm shows that “symmetrical communication plays a significant role in employee perception and assessment of a quality relationship with their company…” (Kang and Sung 2016, p.95).
Via one way communication, managers provide feedback to employees about their performance (Qerimi 2018). This helps employees in developing their skillsets and helps the employer in bringing out the best of their employees- which can fuel the growth of the organisation.
“A two-way, and responsive internal communication system encourages the sharing of opinions and concerns, facilitates internal collaboration and dialogue, and boosts mutual understanding…” (Men and Jiung 2016, p.463) A symmetrical internal communication system has been associated with a participative organizational culture, which emphasizes employee input, participation, sharing, collaboration, and shared decision-making (Grunig et al., 2002) (as cited in Men and Yue 2019, p.8).
Top-down communication helps in maintaining consistency of the message that the organisation wants to give to employees (Welch and Jackson, 2007). This solidifies the goals of the organisation in the minds of the employees and brings them a sense of clarity. As a result, both employer and employee benefit.
Interpersonal two way communication increases a sense of belonging among employees. Cameron and McCollum (1993) noted that the two-way nature of interpersonal communication channels, such as team meetings, group problem-solving sessions, and supervisor briefings, enhances management–employee relationships better than publications. Such informal and personalized communication fosters communication symmetry and a sense of community and belonging among employees (White, Vanc, & Stafford, 2010) (as cited in Men 2014, p.270.
When supervisors provide employees timely and relevant information, employees feel less vulnerable and rely on their coworkers and supervisors more. “Management scholars Thomas, Zolin, and Hartman (2009) indicated, however, that “when employees perceive that they are getting information from their supervisors and coworkers that is timely, accurate, and relevant, they are more likely to feel less vulnerable and more able to rely on their coworkers and supervisors” (as cited in Mishra, Boynton and Mishra 2014, p.185).
Symmetrical internal communication
Asymmetrical internal communication
Even if an organisation deploys symmetrical communication, the manager who receives feedback from employees can discredit the opinions/thoughts of employees by questioning the motive of the employees. “Managers were found to discount employees’ feedback because of their own implicit beliefs about employees as self-serving and untrustworthy” (Morrison & Milliken as cited in Garon 2012, p.363).
Employees are not given the platform to provide inputs for organizational decision-making. This can result in employees feeling not heard or not valued. “Asymmetrical communication is often associated with a centralized and mechanical organizational structure and authoritarian culture, where employees have little opportunity to offer input to organizational decision making (J. E. Grunig, 1992; L. A. Grunig et al., 2002)” (as cited in Men 2014, p.260).
If employees feel that the feedback that they provided to the organisation was not addressed, they will feel demotivated to speak up in the future. Focus group discussions with 33 nurses working in California, USA revealed that although the nurses experienced an open climate and spoke up, the feedback that they provided was not acted upon. This makes them feel like “it was a waste of time and energy to continue to bring up issues” (Garon 2012, p.367).
When there is only top-down communication from managers to employees, employees will get the impression that the company does not value their thoughts, opinions and concerns, eventually causing them to lose trust in the management. Dundon and Gollan, consider that the “perception, among employees, that their voice arrangements afford little utility, could be interpreted as a sign that management is untrustworthy” (as cited in Constantin and Baias 2014, 977).
Managers can label employees who speak up often as chronic complainers which has the effect of undermining the concerns raised by the employees and also harms the relationship between employers and employees. A study focusing on the perception of nurses of their ability to speak up reveals that “managers characterised some staff as chronic complainers, and admitted that they may then discount their views” (Garon 2012, p.368).
Asymmetrical communication harms the organisation as well; managers do not get accurate information that can help them in improving practices and working styles (Garon 2012, p.363).
After communicating a concern, if the employee is not informed whether management took action to resolve the problem, the employee will feel dissatisfied. A study based on focus group discussions with 33 nurses reveals that nurses feel dissatisfied if they are not informed by the management on whether their complaint or concern was addressed or in other words if they were not kept informed of the outcome of their feedback (Garon 2012, p. 368).
A study found out that in organisations such as hospitals, where the end user is the patient, if employees such as nurses don’t speak up, misconduct at the hands of senior doctors will go unnoticed which has the potential of adversely affecting the quality of care the patient receives (Garon 2012).
In a study based on focus group discussions with 33 nurses, one nurse remarked that managers can retaliate against employees, if they realise that employees have reported against them (Garon 2012, p. 367). Therefore, even if employees are given a platform to air their concerns, misconduct on part of managers will nullify the merits of symmetrical communication and in this case can further aggravate the conflict.
A study conducted with nurses working in hospitals in the US reveals that employees are more likely to leave an organisation when there are fewer platforms for them to voice their dissatisfaction (Spencer 1986, p.498).
“Morrison and Milliken noted that managers’ fear of negative feedback causes them to ignore or dismiss messages” (as cited in Garon 2012, p.369). So even if employees are given the opportunity to raise their concerns to the manager, the manager is likely to ignore it. Therefore, even if symmetrical communication is streamlined in the organisation, the attitude of managers towards feedback will negate the benefits brought in by symmetrical communication.
Employees prefer to stay silent because it avoids conflict. “Workers may avoid speaking up to maintain harmonious working relationships…” (Henrikson & Dayton as cited in Garon 2012, p.363).
Taken together, the available research suggests that symmetrical communication is more conducive to the well-being of the employer and employee than asymmetrical communication. Asymmetrical communication helps in clarifying rules and procedures and helps employees in identifying with the goals and objectives of the organisation. On the other hand, because symmetrical communication establishes a two-way communication channel, it helps in clarifying rules and procedures to employees as well as creates a sense of belonging among employees, in forging a good relationship between the employer and employee, and provides employees opportunities to participate in decision-making. Literature indicates that employees also experience positive emotions such as joy and gratitude when symmetrical communication is used.
Literature indicates that the nature of undesirable outcomes of asymmetrical communication is more serious than desirable outcomes. While symmetrical communication can result in employee dissatisfaction with the organization’s willingness to act upon the feedback given, asymmetrical communication can result in high employee turnover, inferior quality of services provided to the customer and reduced efficiency in the organisation.
Therefore, symmetrical communication is preferred.
Taking into account the balance of outcomes, employers and employees, and the quality and consistency of the evidence, we make the following recommendation: For parties looking to prevent or resolve an employment dispute, where the employer and employee want to recognise emotions, needs and interests, symmetrical internal communication is more effective for well-being than asymmetrical communication.
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