Difference between Formal and Informal Communication

Formal vs Informal communication

Communication is an essential component of the management process. Indeed, a superior-subordinate relationship cannot thrive in the absence of effective and meaningful communication. Effective communication is usually described as the exchange of thoughts, facts, opinions, or information between two or more individuals in order to foster mutual understanding or confidence.

Words, symbols, characters, or actions can all be used to communicate. But communication exists as long as members of the organization share some sort of meaning and understanding with one another. It aids in bringing people together and working towards the achievement of common goals.

There are two distinct channels of communication. These are:

  • The formal official channels of communication
  • The informal channels of communication
Difference between formal and informal communication
Difference between formal and informal communication

Understanding Formal communication

Formal channels of communication are primarily established by the organizational structure and are known as “communication through the chain of command.” When designing a communication network, the main focus should be on deciding the degree of dependence to be placed on formal channels. The reason for this is that the official channel has always served as the primary means of communication.

The flow of communication through official channels may be vertical, horizontal, or diagonal.

Vertical communication can flow both upward and downward. While guiding his employees’ actions, a manager offers instructions and commands and transmits information down the levels of hierarchical structure. The flow of authority and the channels via which downward communication must pass are depicted in organizational charts.

While creating activity-authority relationships, the organizational structure not only establishes a channel of command through which the manager communicates directives and information to his subordinates, but it also establishes a line of communication for the subordinates to communicate information back to their superiors (which can be in the form of suggestions, grievances, etc). This represents upward flow.

Now, a horizontal flow of communication is just as important as a vertical flow for the efficient operation of a business. It allows executives or people working at the same level of the management hierarchy to exchange information and coordinate their actions without submitting all issues to higher-level managers.

In addition, diagonal or cross-functional communication occurs when information flow and communication are neither vertical nor horizontal, but rather diagonal or zig-zag. As the name indicates, the communication here takes place between two employees who work at different levels in distinct departments. In larger businesses, diagonal communication is becoming more prevalent. By facilitating direct interaction between the persons involved, it decreases the possibility of distortion or misinterpretation. A junior engineer, for example, reports on the project’s progress directly to the General Manager.

Understanding Informal communication

Sociologists and psychologists point out that the people in organizations have a natural desire to interact informally and outside of formal channels. Within every formal organization, an informal organization grows on its own, bringing with it the informal lines of communication known as the grapevine.

Informal communication is when people communicate in a relaxed, friendly, and unofficial manner. It is a spontaneous interaction and exchange of information between two or more people, that does not follow official rules, methods, systems, formalities, or chain of command.

It denotes any informal interaction regarding business and personal matters that occurs outside of the official network. Thus, the grapevine is a complicated network of informal communication that occurs throughout the day in the workplace. It is characterized by the formation of spontaneous channels via which facts, half-truths, and rumours circulate.

Differences between formal and informal communication

Now that the meaning of formal and informal communication (or grapevine) is clear, let us see the points that set them apart:

1. Nature of communication

Employees from many divisions and levels gather informally and casually to discuss personal as well as organizational issues. The grapevine satisfies people’s social needs and aids in the formation of relationships. It can also be beneficial in addressing certain needs and grievances of employees.

On the other hand, a formal channel of communication is only concerned with authorized organizational messages; personal messages fall outside of its purview.

2. Creation

A formal channel of communication does not emerge by itself; rather, it requires effort to build. It is decided by keeping the goals of the organization in mind.

Whereas, informal channels develop on their own as people with common likes and dislikes group together to discuss issues.

3. Needs of employees

The informal network of communication represents the natural desire of co-workers in an organization to engage and communicate with one another, and it satisfies their wants to know the most recent information or the course of events. It also helps them build social relationships.

Contrary to informal communication that satisfies both personal and organizational needs, formal communication is concerned with the achievement of organizational goals only.

4. Time taken

A grapevine works with incredible speed, often outperforming official channels of communication; which means that the information spreads quickly.

On the other hand, formal channels of communication are time-consuming. Sometimes the distance between the communicator and the receiver is huge and the information has to pass through many hands.

5. Insight into employee thoughts

A grapevine also provides supervisors with an insight into what their subordinates are thinking and feeling.

In the case of formal communication, sometimes officers pay little regard to the suggestions and concerns of their subordinates. In such a circumstance, a subordinate may lose faith in the efficacy of communication.

6. Rumours and secrecy

Rumours, as well as erroneous and incomplete facts, are often spread through informal channels. The information gets distorted due to the different interpretations of each individual.

Formal communication is more credible and trustworthy since it adheres to a pattern established by the company. This helps to maintain the secrecy of the messages shared.

7. Information that can’t be sent officially

Although it has a lot of drawbacks, a manager cannot eliminate informal communication. There are times when information should not be sent through formal channels of communication owing to personal or other considerations. A top-ranking manager’s resignation, for example, may be communicated via the grapevine.

8. Insecurity and uncertainty

During times of insecurity and uncertainty, informal channels of communication give members of the organization a safe place to share their worries and reservations, as well as their attitudes and opinions.

Whereas formal channels have strictly defined boundaries and are used majorly to share work-related matters.

9. Fixed pattern

A grapevine has no steady associates or a specific pattern because it is spontaneous. In most cases, only a few people are active players in the grapevine. Moreover, its route and behaviour are also not predictable.

On the contrary, under formal communication, the information must travel through a specific path from one person to another. As a result, the flow of information is systematic and is determined by organizational hierarchy.

10. Accountability of sender and documentation

Informal networks are based on oral communication, and the communicator is not held accountable for the information he transmits. As a result, the sender feels free to use his imagination and deliver information according to his wants and preferences. He delivers the information as he comprehends it. Further, in order to protect the source (or companion) and the risk of being cut off in the future, the communicator may omit or suppress certain information. Similarly, concern for the feelings of listeners tempts him to convey information that is pleasant to hear.

Contrary to this, the source of each piece of information may be easily identified in the formal channels of communication. This is so because formal communication primarily includes written communication such as e-mails, letters, minutes of meetings, etc. Thus, there is documentary evidence available for every piece of information transmitted from one employee to another.

Summarizing the differences:

Formal communicationInformal communication
Also known as official communicationAlso known as grapevine
Communication through the chain of commandNo boundary
Source of information can be identifiedThe source of information cannot be identified
Documentary evidenceNo documentary evidence
The communicator can be held accountableThe communicator cannot be held accountable
The flow of information is systematicUnsystematic
Determined by organizational hierarchyHas nothing to do with hierarchical structure
No scope for rumoursRumours, as well as erroneous and incomplete facts, may spread
More credible and trustworthyLess reliable
Secrecy is maintainedNot maintained
More time-consumingSpeedy
Addresses organizational goals onlyAddresses personal and organizational needs
Does not emerge by itself; follows a set patternOccurs naturally
Exchange of organizational messagesExchange of personal as well as organizational messages


Both formal & informal communication are essential for sustaining a clear and friendly work culture. Nowadays, most firms strive to effectively integrate the channels of formal and informal communication. Employee efficiency, productivity, and trust are all boosted as a result.

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