Communication Channels - Principles of Management

A critical part of the communication model is the channel or medium through which information is transmitted. There are two main types of channels: verbal and nonverbal. Verbal communication includes any oral or written means of transmitting meaning through words including face-to-face meetings, telephone conversations, written memos, and e-mail messages.

Nonverbal communication is any part of communication that does not use words. Here we review verbal and nonverbal communication channels and discuss the best channel to use.


Face-to-face communication is one of the richest media channels for exchanging information. Media richness refers to the data-carrying capacity of a channel —to the volume and variety of information a sender and receiver can transmit during a specific time. Face-to-face communication is a media-rich channel because oral communication is supported by important nonverbal cues such as voice intonation, facial expressions (raised eyebrows, smiles, frowns), the use of silence, posture, and the like.

Furthermore, face-to-face interaction gives the sender immediate feedback from the receiver and the opportunity to adjust the emotional tone of the message and tailor content accordingly.

Telephone conversations are a step down in media richness. Although many nonverbal cues are missing from telephone conversations, such as facial expressions and posture, voice intonation can still carry an enormous amount of information. An emerging communication channel, videoconferencing over the Internet, may offer an improvement over the telephone by allowing communicators to observe some nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions. This technology, however, is still not widely used, although that may change in the future.

Electronic mail (e-mail) is now widely used to exchange information that at one time was transmitted over the telephone. E-mail has revolutionized how we communicate in organizational settings. It has become the medium of choice in most workplaces because messages are quickly formed, edited, and stored. Information can be appended and transmitted to many people easily.

E-mail has become the preferred medium for coordinating work (such as c onfirming a coworker’s production schedule or arranging a meeting) and for sending well-defined information for decision making. It often increases the volume of communication and significantly alters the flow of that information within groups and throughout the organization. Most notably, it reduces some face-to-face and telephone communication but increases communication between people at different levels in an organization hierarchy.

Some social and organizational status differences still exist with e-mail, but they are less apparent than in face-to-face communication. E-mail also reduces many unconscious perceptual biases because it hides our age, race, weight, and other features that are observable in face-to-face meetings and that unfortunately introduce noise into the communication process.

E-mail is not as media-rich as face-to-face meetings and telephone conversations. E-mail lacks visual and verbal cues, so there is a greater chance of misinterpreting a message. Another problem with e-mail is that it seems to reduce our politeness and respect for others, which is mostly evident through the increased frequency of flaming —the act of sending an emotionally charged message to others.

There are two explanations for this lack of diplomacy. First, people can quickly write and post e-mail messages before their emotions subside, whereas cooler thoughts might prevail before traditional memos or letters are sent. Second, e-mail is an impersonal medium, allowing employees to write things they would never say in face-to-face conversation. Fortunately, research has found that politeness and respect increase as people get to know each other and when companies establish explicit norms and rules governing e-mail communication.

Another problem with e-mail is that it is an inefficient medium for communicating in ambiguous, complex, and novel situations. The communicating parties lack mutual mental models, so they need to transmit many messages to share enough information. Two-way face-to-face communication is a much more effective medium under these circumstances, but many employees are reluctant to break out of the e-mail habit. A final problem with e-mail is that it contributes to information overload.

Hundreds of messages can overwhelm e-mail users each week, many of which are either unnecessary or irrelevant to the receivers. Using e-mails, somebody can easily create and copy a message to thousands of people through group mailbox systems, which exacerbates information overload.

Instant messaging (IM) is another form of computer-mediated information exchange that has gained popularity in some organizations. In some ways IM is more efficient than e-mail because messages are brief (usually just a sentence or two with acronyms and sound-alike letters for words), appear on the receiver’s screen as soon as they are sent, and allow real-time feedback; and several people can engage simultaneously in an IM conversation.

Another advantage is that employees soon develop the capability of carrying on several IM conversations at the same time. “No matter how good you are on the phone, the best you can do is carry on two conversations at once,” says one New York City broker.

“With IM, I can have six going at once. . . . That allows me to get my job done and serve clients better.” 9 Like e-mail, however, IM lacks the media richness of face-to-face or telephone conversations.

Lower still in media richness are written letters, memos, and reports. Such media convey only the cues that are written on paper (they are now often appended to e-mail, but they lack the immediacy of direct e-mail communications). The lack of richness of this media can be an advantage in some situations. Carefully crafted written statements might clarify a message while helping the sender avoid the noise associated with perceptual biases, inappropriate nonverbal cues, and the like.

Web logs (blogs), which are in effect online diaries, have started to emerge as a novel way by which executives can communicate with many employees using the written word.

Executives at Google, for example, regularly post information of value to other employees and customers on the “official” Google blog site. In media richness blogs are similar to written letters, reports, and memos.

The big difference is that whereas executives normally have specific targets for written letters and memos, blogs are open to all to visit, and people elect to be receivers by visiting the Web site.


Nonverbal communication refers to messages sent through human actions and behaviors rather than words. As noted previously, nonverbal communication includes facial gestures, voice intonation, posture, physical distance, and silence.

Nonverbal communication occurs most in face-to-face situations, although voice intonation is detectable over the telephone. In face-to-face communication, research indicates that nonverbal cues have a greater impact on message interpretation than actual spoken words.

For example, how would you feel if during a meeting with your boss he kept gazing out the window? How would you feel if he looked directly at you the entire time with an interested expression on his face? The words might be the same, but the nonverbal cues would result in a very different perception on your part of how successful the meeting was. Rather like a parallel conversation, nonverbal cues signal subtle information to both parties that colors the words communicated, placing them in a richer context.

Nonverbal communication differs from verbal communication in a number of ways. First, it is less rule-bound than verbal communication. We receive a lot of formal training in how to understand spoken words but little in understanding nonverbal signals. On the face of it, this may mean that nonverbal cues are generally more ambiguous and susceptible to misinterpretation.

However, many facial expressions (such as smiling or raising eyebrows) are hardwired and universal, thereby providing the only reliable means of communicating across cultures. In addition, many other nonverbal cues are common to a culture—so if you are from that culture, you are socialized into understanding them at an early age.

Another difference between verbal and nonverbal communication is that the former is typically conscious, whereas most nonverbal communication is automatic and unconscious. We normally plan the words we say or write, but we cannot plan every blink, smile, or other gesture during a conversation. Often we involuntarily send out strong nonverbal cues, such as by blushing at an embarrassing moment; these can influence the perception that receivers might have of any message we are trying to convey.

One of the most fascinating effects of emotions on nonverbal communication is the phenomenon called emotional contagion , which is the automatic process of “catching” or sharing another person’s emotions by mimicking that person’s facial expressions and other nonverbal behavior. Consider what happens when you see a coworker accidentally bang his or her head against a filing cabinet.

You probably wince and put your hand on your own head as if you had hit the cabinet. Similarly, while listening to someone describe a positive event, you tend to smile and exhibit other emotional displays of happiness. While some of our nonverbal communication is planned, emotional contagion represents unconscious behavior—we automatically mimic and synchronize our nonverbal behaviors with those of other people.

Emotional contagion serves three purposes. First, mimicry provides continuous feedback, communicating that we understand and empathize with the sender. To consider the significance of this, imagine employees remaining expressionless after watching a coworker bang his or her head! The lack of parallel behavior conveys a lack of understanding or caring. Second, mimicking the nonverbal behavior of other people seems to be a way of receiving emotional meaning from those people.

If a coworker is angry with a client, your tendency to frown and show anger while listening helps you share that emotion more fully. In other words, we receive meaning by expressing the sender’s emotions as well as by listening to the sender’s words. The third function of emotional contagion is to fulfill the drive to bond with our coworkers. Through nonverbal expressions of emotional contagion, we see others share the emotions we feel. This can strengthen team cohesiveness by providing evidence of member similarity.


Each communication channel has advantages and disadvantages. The best channel to use depends on the situation. We have already described how the media richness of different channels varies, with face-to-face communication having the greatest media richness and written reports the least. Media richness is actually determined by three factors:

  1. Rich media simultaneously use multiple communication methods.

    For instance, face-to-face communication scores high on media richness because it includes both verbal and nonverbal information exchange, whereas written reports rely on just verbal information.

  2. Rich media such as face-to-face communication allow immediate feedback from receiver to sender, whereas feedback in lean media, such as written reports, is delayed or nonexistent.
  3. Rich media let the sender customize the message to the receiver. Most face-to-face conversations are developed specifically for one or a few people (speeches being an exception to this rule). Financial reports, in contrast, have low media richness because one size fits all—everyone gets the same information.

Figure below shows that rich media are better than lean media when the communication situation is nonroutine or ambiguous. In nonroutine situations (such as an unexpected and unusual emergency) the sender and receiver have little common experience, so they need to transmit a large volume of information and receive immediate feedback.

Ambiguous situations also require rich media because the parties must share large amounts of information with immediate feedback to resolve multiple and conflicting interpretations of their observations and experiences. In contrast, lean media work well in routine situations because the sender and receiver have common expectations through shared mental models.

Matching Media to the Situation

Matching Media to the Situation

What happens when we choose the wrong level of media richness for the situation? When the situation is routine or clear, using a rich medium—such as holding a special face-to-face meeting—would seem like a waste of time. On the other hand, if a unique or ambiguous issue is handled through a written report or some other lean medium, then issues take longer to resolve and misunderstandings are more likely to occur.

For example, consider an emergency situation, such as what occurred in February 2006 when Vice President Dick Cheney, while hunting in Texas, accidentally shot one of his hunting companions, Harry Whittington (Whittington spent several days in the hospital). Cheney and his staff kept the incident secret for 24 hours. When information about the incident was released, it was through a statement by the owner of the ranch where the accident occurred to a local Texas newspaper (this could be characterized as a lean medium).

Within hours the news was all over the national press. Commentators were demanding to know why Cheney was being so secretive and how the accident happened. The news coverage quickly spiraled out of control, and press reports were criticizing Cheney for his secrecy. After four days of front-page coverage, during which Cheney said nothing, President Bush apparently persuaded Cheney to go on national television, explain the incident to an interviewer, and accept responsibility, which he did. After that the controversy died down.

Cheney and his staff had failed to recognize that the shooting incident was a nonroutine and ambiguous incident that required face-to-face communication. A third-party news release, followed by days of silence, was too simple a media response for the situation. When Cheney finally engaged in face-to-face communication with a news interviewer he was matching the medium to the situation; this pushed the incident off the front page.

A factor to consider in matching media to situations is the communicator’s previous experience with the receiver. When people share mental models, less information exchange is required to communicate new meaning. People who know each other may have similar mental models, so the sender can communicate with fewer words or other symbols and doesn’t need to check as closely that the message has been understood.

When a shared mental model is lacking, the sender needs to add redundancy (such as saying the same thing in two different ways). This requires the detailed feedback of rich media to make sure the receiver has understood the message.

Another factor to bear in mind when choosing communication media concerns the famous statement by communication guru Marshall McLuhan: “The medium is the message.” This means that the channel of communication has social consequences as important as (or perhaps more significant than) the content that passes through that medium.

McLuhan was referring mainly to the influence of television and other “new media” on society; but this concept applies equally well to how the symbolic meaning of a communication medium influences our interpretation of a message and the relationship between sender and receiver.

The medium-as-message principle was apparent when the consulting firm KPMG sent layoff notices to hundreds of its British employees via e-mail. The public swiftly criticized KPMG—not because of the content of the message but because of the medium through which it was transmitted. Ironically KPMG delivered the bad news by e-mail because most employees had specifically asked for this method.

Yet even the KPMG executives who sent the layoff notices were hesitant. “I was horrified about telling staff via e-mail as I knew it would make us look callous,” admitted one executive. The point here is that we need to be sensitive to the symbolic meanings of communication media to ensure that they amplify rather than distort the meaning of messages.

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