Serial Communication

Breaking Down Serial Communication

Serial communication is communicationOpens in new window transmitted consecutively from one person to another. This communication pattern flows vertically and horizontally between three or more persons along the organizational hierarchy path.

In serial communication, job instructions are developed by managers and transmitted to the supervisors who report to them. The supervisors, in turn, transmit the instructions to the workers under their direction.

Serial communication may also flow in reverse order; where the message is transmitted from an employee to her supervisor, who transmits it to her supervisor, who, in turn, transmits it to her supervisor, and so on until the messageOpens in new window reaches the manager.

Some Setbacks Associated With Serial Communication

With serial communication, messages often change—sometimes dramatically—as they are sent from one member of the chain to another. Because each sender may omit, modify, or add details to the message as he or she transmits it; serial communication suffers several serious setbacks.

  1. The first setback is that the content and tone of the message change as it moves from person to person. Messages are seldom received the way they were sent—especially if the message is being transmitted orally from person to person.
  2. The second setback is that bad news and complaints are seldom transmitted. This is in part due to the stress associated with delivering bad news (McKee & Ptacek, 2001). Rosen and Tesser (1970) have labeled this reluctance to pass bad news the MUM effect.

    To digress a little, the MUM (minimize unpleasant messages) effect, is the idea that people prefer not to pass on unpleasant information, with the result that important information is not always communicated (Michael G. Aamodt). Learn more about the MUM Effect hereOpens in new window!
  3. The third setback with serial communication, especially when it has to do with informal communication channels, is that it is less effective the farther away two people are from one another. This means a supervisor is more likely to pass along a message to another supervisor if the two are in close physical proximity.

    It is unlikely, therefore, that an informal message originating with an employee at a plant in Atlanta will reach another employee at the corporate office in Phoenix. The importance of physical proximity cannot be overstated.

    As you probably would imagine, proximity does not play a role when messages are communicated electronically using e-mail (Valacich, Parantia, George, & Nunamaker, 1993). Thus, e-mail may reduce the power of proximity when communication is formal.

Because of these problems with serial communication, special precautions are necessary. Four techniques will assist in maintaining the accuracy of and achieving understanding with serial communication.

Although serial communication is typically oral, e-mail has increased its presence in written form. The ability to forward messages without paraphrasing them minimizes or eliminates the distortion customary in oral serial messages. This advantage is lost, however, when those who receive the message add to or comment on it before passing it along. Having to read the additional information can place a burden on the receiver.

Some serial communication follows a pattern known as the grapevineOpens in new window. Unlike messages being passed through a sequential chain, grapevine messages create a random pattern. Each receiver may tell no one, one person, or several people. The result is a communication flow that rambles and spreads in unpredictable ways.