Richard G. Jones, Jr.
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How to Communicate with Your Boss:

Apr 22, 2013

Upward Communication in Business Contexts

Upward communication includes speeches, proposals, or briefings that are directed at audience members who hold higher positions in the organizational hierarchy than the sender. Upward communication is usually the most lacking within an organization, so it's important to take advantage of the opportunity and use it to your advantage.[i]

Upward messages usually function to inform supervisors about the status or results of projects. They can also allow employees to provide suggestions for improvement, which can help people feel included in the organizational process and lead to an increased understanding and acceptance of management decisions.[ii]

So how do we adapt messages for upward communication?

The "executive summary" is a form of upward communication adapted to fit executives' tight schedules and preference for concise, relevant information. Executive summaries are usually first produced in written form and then later conveyed orally during a meeting or briefing. You should build some repetition and redundancy into an oral presentation of an executive summary, but you do not need such repetition in the written version. This allows you to emphasize a main idea while leaving some of the supporting facts out of an oral presentation.

If an executive or supervisor leaves a presentation with a clear understanding of the main idea, the supporting material and facts will be meaningful when they are reviewed later. However, leaving a presentation with facts but not the main idea may result in the need for another presentation or briefing, which costs an organization time and money. Even when such a misunderstanding is due to the executives’ poor listening skills, it will likely be the employee who is blamed.

Employees want to be seen as competent, and demonstrating oral communication skills is a good way to be noticed and show off your technical and professional abilities.[iii] Presentations are "high visibility tasks" that establish a person’s credibility when performed well.[iv] Don’t take advantage of this visibility to the point that you perform only for the boss or focus on him or her at the expense of other people in the audience.

Do, however, tailor your message to the "language of executives." Executives and supervisors often have a more macro perspective of an organization and may be concerned with how day-to-day tasks match with the mission and vision of the organization. So making this connection explicit in your presentation can help make your presentation stand out.

Be aware of organizational hierarchy and territory when speaking to executives and supervisors. Steering into terrain that is under someone else’s purview can get you in trouble if that person guards his or her territory.[v] For example, making a suggestion about marketing during a presentation about human resources can ruffle the marketing manager’s feathers and lead to negative consequences for you.

Also be aware that it can be challenging to deliver bad news to a boss. When delivering bad news, frame it in a way that highlights your concern for the health of the organization. An employee’s reluctance to discuss problems with a boss leads to more risk for an organization.[vi] The sooner a problem is known, the better for the organization.

Question to Consider:

Think of a recent instance in which you engaged in upward communication and it didn't go as well as you wanted? Could any of the suggestions above have helped?


[i] Ralph G. Nichols and Leonard A. Stevens, “Listening to People,” in Harvard Business Review on Effective Communication (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), 15.

[ii] Robert B. Adler and Jeanne Marquardt Elmhorst, Communicating at Work: Principles and Practices for Businesses and the Professions, 8th ed. (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2005), 15.

[iii] Fernando Bartolome, “Nobody Trusts the Boss Completely—Now What?” in Harvard Business Review on Effective Communication (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), 92.

[iv] Rick Weinholdt, “Taking the Trauma Out of the Talk,” The Information Management Journal, 40, no. 6 (2006): 62.

[v] Michael B. McCaskey, “The Hidden Messages Managers Send,” in Harvard Business Review on Effective Communication (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), 128.

[vi] Fernando Bartolome, “Nobody Trusts the Boss Completely—Now What?” in Harvard Business Review on Effective Communication (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), 81.