Y Hierarchy Of Managerial Communications Essay


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Theory X and Theory Y represent two sets of assumptions about human nature and human behavior that are relevant to the practice of management. Theory X represents a negative view of human nature that assumes individuals generally dislike work, are irresponsible, and require close supervision to do their jobs. Theory Y denotes a positive view of human nature and assumes individuals are generally industrious, creative, and able to assume responsibility and exercise self-control in their jobs. One would expect, then, that managers holding assumptions about human nature that are consistent with Theory X might exhibit a managerial style that is quite different than managers who hold assumptions consistent with Theory Y.

The first section explains the development of Theory X and Theory Y. Second, the effect of Theory X and Theory Y on management functions is discussed. Third is a criticism of Theory Y followed by the concluding section, Theory X and Theory Y in the twenty-first century.


After the Hawthorne experiments and the subsequent behavioral research of the 1930s and 1940s, the human relations approach to management joined the classical perspective as a major school of management thought. Whereas the classical school as espoused by management pioneers such as Frederick Taylor and Henri Fayol focused on principles of management, scientific selection and training, and worker compensation, the human relations approach emphasized behavioral issues such as job satisfaction, group norms, and supervisory style.

The human relations model was hailed as a more enlightened management paradigm because it explicitly considered the importance of individual and how managers could increase productivity by increasing workers' job satisfaction. The end goal for management increased employee productivity; the assumption was that satisfied workers would be more productive compared with workers who felt antagonized by the companies they worked for.

In the 1950s, Douglas McGregor (1906-1964), a psychologist who taught at MIT and served as president of Antioch College from 1948-1954, criticized both the classical and human relations schools as inadequate for the realities of the workplace. He believed that the assumptions underlying both schools represented a negative view of human nature and that another approach to management based on an entirely different set of assumptions was needed. McGregor laid out his ideas in his classic 1957 article "The Human Side of Enterprise" and the 1960 book of the same name, in which he introduced what came to be called the new humanism.

McGregor argued that the conventional approach to managing was based on three major propositions, which he called Theory X:

  1. Management is responsible for organizing the elements of productive enterprise-money, materials, equipment, and people-in the interests of economic ends.
  2. With respect to people, this is a process of directing their efforts, motivating them, controlling their actions, and modifying their behavior to fit the needs of the organization.
  3. Without this active intervention by management, people would be passive-even resistant-to organizational needs. They must therefore be persuaded, rewarded, punished, and controlled. Their activities must be directed. Management's task was thus simply getting things done through other people.

According to McGregor, these tenets of management are based on less explicit assumptions about human nature. The first of these assumptions is that individuals do not like to work and will avoid it if possible. A further assumption is that human beings do not want responsibility and desire explicit direction. Additionally, individuals are assumed to put their individual concerns above that of the organization for which they work and to resist change, valuing security more than other considerations at work. Finally, human beings are assumed to be easily manipulated and controlled. McGregor contended that both the classical and human relations approaches to management depended this same set of assumptions. He called the first style of management "hard" and identified its methods as close supervision, tight controls, and coercion.

The hard style of management led to restriction of output, mutual distrust, unionism, and even sabotage. McGregor called the second style of management "soft" and identified its methods as permissiveness and need satisfaction. McGregor suggested that the soft style of management often led to managers' failure to perform their managerial role. He also pointed out that employees often take advantage of an overly permissive manager by demanding more but performing at lower levels.

McGregor drew upon the work of Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) to explain why Theory X assumptions led to ineffective management. Maslow had proposed that man's needs are arranged in levels, with physical and safety needs at the bottom of the needs hierarchy and social, ego, and self-actualization needs at upper levels of the hierarchy. Maslow's basic point was that once a need is met, it no longer motivates behavior; thus, only unmet needs are motivational. McGregor argued that most employees already had their physical and safety needs met and that the motivational emphasis had shifted to the social, ego, and self-actualization needs. Therefore, management had to provide opportunities for these upper-level needs to be met in the workplace, or employees would not be satisfied or motivated in their jobs.

Such opportunities could be provided by allowing employees to participate in decision making, by redesigning jobs to make them more challenging, or by emphasizing good work group relations, among other things. According to McGregor, neither the hard style of management based on the classical school nor the soft style of management inspired by the human relations movement were sufficient to motivate employees. Thus, he proposed a different set of assumptions about human nature as it pertains to the workplace.

McGregor put forth these assumptions, which he believed could lead to more effective management of people in the organization, under the rubric of Theory Y. The major propositions of Theory Y include the following:

  1. Management is responsible for organizing the elements of productive enterprise-money, materials, equipment, and people in the interests of economic ends.
  2. People are not by nature passive or resistant to organizational needs. They have become so as a result of experience in organizations.
  3. The motivation, potential for development, capacity for assuming responsibility, and readiness to direct behavior toward organizational goals are all present in people-management does not put them there. It is a responsibility of management to make it possible for people to recognize and develop these human characteristics for themselves.
  4. The essential task of management is to arrange organizational conditions and methods of operation so that people can achieve their own goals by directing their efforts toward organizational objectives.

Thus, Theory Y has at its core the assumption that the physical and mental effort involved in work is natural and that individuals actively seek to engage in work. It also assumes that close supervision and the threat of punishment are not the only means or even the best means for inducing employees to exert productive effort. Instead, if given the opportunity, employees will display self-motivation to put forth the effort necessary to achieve the organization's goals. Thus, avoiding responsibility is not an inherent quality of human nature; individuals will actually seek it out under the proper conditions. Theory Y also assumes that the ability to be innovative and creative exists among a large, rather than a small segment of the population. Finally, it assumes that rather than valuing security above all other rewards associated with work, individuals desire rewards that satisfy their self-esteem and self-actualization needs.

Although McGregor did not believe that it was possible to create a completely Theory Y-type organization in the 1950s, he did believe that Theory Y assumptions would lead to more effective management. He identified several approaches to management that he felt were consistent with the precepts of Theory Y. These included decentralization of decision-making authority, delegation, job enlargement, and participative management. Job enrichment programs that began in the 1960s and 1970s also were consistent with the assumptions of Theory Y.

In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, McGregor's conceptualization of Theory X and Theory Y were often used as the basis for discussions of management style, employee involvement, and worker motivation. Empirical evidence concerning the validity of Theory X and Theory Y, however, was mixed. Some writers suggested that organizations implementing Theory Y tended to revert back to Theory X in tough economic times.

Others suggested that Theory Y was not always more effective than Theory X, but that the contingencies of each managerial situation determined which of the approaches was more appropriate. Still others suggested extensions to Theory Y. One of these, William Ouchi's Theory Z, attempted to combine the strength of American management philosophies based on Theory Y with Japanese management philosophies.

Along with writers such as Argyris and Likert, McGregor was one of several important humanist writers of the mid-twentieth century who argued that traditional organizational hierarchies create a state of dependence between subordinates and their managers and served as a bridge between the human relations school and a new form of organizational humanism based on Theory Y.


In their well-known textbook, Harold Koontz and Cyril O'Donnell illustrated how the managerial functions of planning, leading, and controlling might be affected by Theory X and Theory Y assumptions. In regard to planning, Theory X assumptions might lead to the superior setting of objectives with little or no participation from subordinates. Theory Y assumptions, conversely, should lead to cooperative objectives designed with input from both employees and managers, resulting in a higher commitment by subordinates to accomplish these shared objectives.

Under Theory X, managers' leadership styles are likely to be autocratic, which may create resistance on the part of subordinates. Communication flow is more likely to be downward from manager to the subordinates. In contrast, Theory Y may foster leadership styles that are more participative, which would empower subordinates to seek responsibility and be more committed to goal achievement. Theory Y leadership should increase communication flow, especially in the upward direction.

In regard to control, Theory X is likely to result in external control, with the manager acting as a performance judge; the focus is generally on the past. Conversely, Theory Y should lead to control processes based on subordinates' self-control. The manager is more likely to act as a coach rather than a judge, focusing on how performance can be improved in the future rather than on who was responsible for past performance. Although the conceptual linkages between Theory X and Theory Y assumptions and managerial styles are relatively straightforward, empirical research has not clearly demonstrated that the relationship between these assumptions and managers' styles of planning, organizing, leading, and controlling is consistent with McGregor's ideas.


The goal of managers using Theory X management styles was to accomplish organizational goals through the organization's human resources. McGregor's research suggested that when work was better aligned with human needs and motivations, employee productivity would increase. As a result, some critics have suggested that, rather than concern for employees, Theory Y style managers were simply engaged in a seductive form a manipulation. Even as managers better matched work tasks to basic human motivational needs through participative management, job rotation, job enlargement, and other programs that emerged at least partly from McGregor's work, managers were still focusing on measures of productivity rather than measures of employee well-being. In essence, critics charge that Theory Y is a condescending scheme for inducing increased productivity from employees, and unless employees share in the economic benefits of their increased productivity, then they have simply been duped into working harder for the same pay.


McGregor's work on Theory X and Theory Y has had a significant impact on management thought and practice in the years since he first articulated the concepts. In terms of the study of management, McGregor's concepts are included in the overwhelming majority of basic management textbooks, and they are still routinely presented to students of management. Most textbooks discuss Theory X and Theory Y within the context of motivation theory; others place Theory X and Theory Y within the history of the organizational humanism movement.

Theory X and Theory Y are often studied as a prelude to developing greater understanding of more recent management concepts, such as job enrichment, the job-characteristics model, and self-managed work teams. Although the terminology may have changed since the 1950s, McGregor's ideas have had tremendous influence on the study of management.

In terms of the practice of management, the workplace of the early twenty-first century, with its emphasis on self-managed work teams and other forms of worker involvement programs, is generally consistent with the precepts of Theory Y. There is every indication that such programs will continue to increase, at least to the extent that evidence of their success begins to accumulate.

Tim Barnett

Revised by Scott B. Droege


Drach-Zahavy, A. "The Proficiency Trap: How to Balance Enriched Job Designs and the Team's Need for Support." Journal of Organizational Behavior 25, no. 8 (2004): 979–997.

Grandy, A. "Emotions at Work: Theory, Research and Applications for Management." Human Relations 57, no. 10 (2004): 1351–1356.

McGregor, D. The Human Side of Enterprise. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1960.

Spence-Laschinger, H.K., J.E. Finegan, J. Shamian, and P. Wilk. "A Longitudinal Analysis of the Impact of Workplace Empowerment on Work Satisfaction." Journal of Organizational Behavior 25, no. 4 (2004): 527–544.

Also read article about Theory X and Theory Y from Wikipedia

Telecommunications Theory Z

Dr. Berger’s article outlines the subject of employee/organizational communication, describing its importance and basic internal communication processes, networks and channels. Highlighting important issues in current practices, the article concludes with 15 principles of effective communication and an interactive list of recommended readings.

“The greatest continuing area of weakness in management practice is the human dimension. In good times or bad, there seems to be little real understanding of the relationships between managers, among employees, and interactions between the two. When there are problems, everyone acknowledges that the cause often is a communication problem. So now what?” Jim Lukazewski, 2006

Executive Summary

This article reviews the research-based knowledge regarding employee/organizational communications, a complex process that is vital to organizational success in a dynamic global marketplace. I first define the subject, summarize its importance and describe basic internal communication processes, networks and channels. The benefits of internal communication are then highlighted, followed by a history of the changing perceptions and practices of internal communication. I then discuss the roles of professional communicators and four important issues in current practice–social media, measurement, employee engagement and organizational identity. The article concludes with 15 principles of effective communication, a list of references and some suggested readings.

I want to thank internal communication experts Keith Burton, Gary Grates and Sean Williams, whose valuable insights and suggestions greatly enriched this article.

Definition of the Topic

Employee/organizational communications refer to communications and interactions among employees or members of an organization. I use the terms internal communications and organizational communications to mean the same thing. Internal communications also have been called internal relations (Cutlip, Center & Broom, 2006) and internal public relations (Kennan & Hazleton, 2006; Kreps, 1989).

Deetz (2001) described two ways of seeing and defining internal communications. The most common approach focuses on internal communication as a “phenomenon that exists in organizations” (p. 5). In this view, the organization is a container in which communication occurs. A second approach sees internal communication as “a way to describe and explain organizations” (p. 5). Here, communication is the central process through which employees share information, create relationships, make meaning and “construct” organizational culture and values. This process is a combination of people, messages, meaning, practices and purpose (Shockley-Zalabak, 1995), and it is the foundation of modern organizations (D’Aprix, 1996).

The first approach has dominated, but the second perspective is gaining wider acceptance as more organizations recognize the crucial role of communication in dealing with complex issues and rapid changes in a turbulent global market.

Why Internal Communication Matters

Communication is one of the most dominant and important activities in organizations (Harris & Nelson, 2008). Fundamentally, relationships grow out of communication, and the functioning and survival of organizations is based on effective relationships among individuals and groups. In addition, organizational capabilities are developed and enacted through “intensely social and communicative processes” (Jones et al., 2004). Communication helps individuals and groups coordinate activities to achieve goals, and it’s vital in socialization, decision-making, problem-solving and change-management processes.

Internal communication also provides employees with important information about their jobs, organization, environment and each other. Communication can help motivate, build trust, create shared identity and spur engagement; it provides a way for individuals to express emotions, share hopes and ambitions and celebrate and remember accomplishments. Communication is the basis for individuals and groups to make sense of their organization, what it is and what it means.

Communication Processes, Networks and Channels

Internal communication is a complex and dynamic process, but early models focused on a one-way transmission of messages. The Shannon-Weaver Model (1949), concerned with technology and information distribution, is a classic example. In this S-M-C-R model, an information source [S] encoded a message [M] and delivered it through a selected channel [C] to a designated receiver [R], who decoded it. Later versions of the model added a feedback loop from receiver to sender. Nevertheless, the model suggested that all meaning is contained within the message, and the message would be understood if received. It was a sender-focused model.

Berlo’s (1960)S-M-C-R model provided a richer interactional perspective. He emphasized relationships between source and receiver and suggested that the more highly developed the communication knowledge and skills of sources and receivers, the more effectively the message would be encoded and decoded. Berlo also acknowledged the importance of the culture in which communication occurs, the attitudes of senders and receivers and strategic channel selection. Later models emphasized the transactional nature of the process and how individuals, groups and organizations construct meaning and purpose (Harris & Nelson, 2008).

Today, the model is more complex due to new media and high-speed, multi-directional communications (Burton, 2008; Williams, 2008). However, the core components live on in formal communications planning and implementation. Organizational leaders and communication specialists first develop strategies to achieve objectives, construct relevant messages and then transmit them through diverse channels to stimulate conversations with employees and members. Increasingly, formal communications are grounded in receivers’ needs and concerns. Employees communicate informally with others inside and outside the organization through high-speed communications, too.

Communication Levels

Internal communication occurs on multiple levels. Interpersonal or face-to-face (F-T-F) communication between individuals is a primary form of communication, and for years organizations have sought to develop the speaking, writing and presentation skills of leaders, managers and supervisors. Group-level communications occur in teams, units and employee resource or interest groups (ERGs). The focus on this level is information sharing, issue discussion, task coordination, problem solving and consensus building. Organizational-level communications focus on such matters as vision and mission, policies, new initiatives and organizational knowledge and performance. These formal communications often follow a cascade approach where leaders at hierarchical levels communicate with their respective employees, though social media are changing communications at this level.

Communication Networks

A network represents how communication flows in an organization. Networks can be formal and informal. In a formal communication network, messages travel through official pathways (e.g., newsletters, memos, policy statements) that reflect the organization’s hierarchy. Informal communications move along unofficial paths (e.g., the grapevine, which is now electronic, fast and multidirectional) and include rumors, opinions, aspirations and expressions of emotions. Informal communications are often interpersonal and horizontal, and employees believe they are more authentic than formal communications (Burton, 2008). Employees and members use both networks to understand and interpret their organizations.

Communications also can be described as vertical, horizontal or diagonal. Vertical communication can be downward–flowing down the hierarchy of an organization–or upward, i.e., moving from lower to higher levels in the chain of command. Horizontal communication refers to communication among persons who have no hierarchical relationship, such as three supervisors from different functions. Diagonal or omni-directional communication occurs among employees at different levels and in different functions, e.g., a quality control supervisor, accountant and systems analyst. Evolving organizational structures and technologies create opportunities for new and conflicting communication flows (Williams, 2008).

Studies regarding the effectiveness of communication flows often reveal employee dissatisfaction with both downward and upward communications. Findings by the Opinion Research Corporation, which has examined employee perceptions of internal communication for more than 50 years, generally show that more than half of employees are dissatisfied or somewhat dissatisfied with both downward and upward communications (Cutlip, Center & Broom, 2006). Less is known about the effectiveness of horizontal and diagonal communications.

Communication Channels

A communication channel is a medium through which messages are transmitted and received. Channels are categorized as print, electronic or F-T-F (interpersonal). Common print channels include memos, brochures, newsletters, reports, policy manuals, annual reports and posters. New technologies have spurred the use of electronic channels, e.g., email and voice mail, Intranets, blogs, podcasts, chat rooms, business TV, video conferencing, instant messaging systems, wikis and electronic town-hall meetings. Face-to-face channels include speeches, team meetings, focus groups, brown bag lunches, social events and gatherings and management by wandering around.

According to Harris and Nelson (2008), the most used channel is listening, which consumes about half of our communication time (Johnson, 1996). Effective listening is crucial to learning, understanding, conflict resolution and productive team work. It helps leaders at all levels improve employee morale, retain employees and uncover and resolve problems. Yet, many studies suggest that most people are not good listeners, and few organizations devote resources to developing listening skills in managers and leaders (Alessandra & Hunsaker, 1993).

“The medium is the message.” Marshall McLuhan, 1964

Selection of Media

Today, organizations and their employees and members have access to many communication channels. Selecting the most appropriate medium or media is an important issue for professional communicators once they have determined objectives and strategies, assessed relevant audiences and constructed messages. Perhaps no one made this point more strongly than McLuhan (1964), who claimed that “the medium is the message.” He argued that each medium, independent of content, engages receivers in different ways and affects the scale and pace of communication.

McLuhan distinguished between “hot” and “cool” media, each of which involves different degrees of receiver participation. Hot media (e.g., print channels, film, lecture, radio) require less active participation and involvement than cool media (e.g., TV, comic books, F-T-F channels). Hot media are more segmented and linear, while cool media may be more abstract and require more participation to understand.

Daft and Lengel (1984) developed a media richness model to explain media choices. They said that media choice should match the ambiguity of any communication task with the richness of particular media. Ambiguity refers to the difficulty of interpreting or understanding a message. Media richness refers to the capability of media to effectively convey information. Capability is differentiated by the availability and speed of feedback of the channel, the use of multiple cues and natural language to facilitate understanding and the personal focus of the message.

The researchers proposed a continuum of media choices: At one end are channels that possess most or all of these capabilities (rich media); at the other end are channels with few of these characteristics (lean media). F-T-F communication is the richest medium and optimal channel for communicating complex information or resolving conflicts, for example. Lean and impersonal media include simple announcements, data reports and posters. Electronic mail, phone calls, personal written communications and other channels fall in the middle of the continuum.

Later research has shown that media selection also is influenced by the social environment in organizations, which affects member attitudes toward a channel or medium and how it is or should be used in their organizations (Fulk et al., 1987). The dual-capacity model of media use (Sitkin, Sutcliffe, & Barrios-Choplin, 1992) argued that any channel carries two types of messages–a “data” or task-related message, and a “meaning” or symbolic message. The data-carrying capacity of media is similar across organizations, but the symbol-carrying capacity varies from one organization to another due to cultural differences. Thus, communicators should select channels based on message ambiguity, media richness, organizational culture and available resources.

Measureable Benefits

Internal communication continues to evolve in a dynamic world characterized by an explosion of new technologies, intense global competition and rapid change. Today, many would agree with Harris and Nelson’s (2008) assertion that internal communication is an essential aspect of organizational change–it is “the key variable in almost all change efforts, diversity initiatives and motivation” (p. 95). Some even argue that internal communication is the most “fundamental driver of business performance” (Gay, Mahoney & Graves, 2005, p. 11).

A growing body of evidence demonstrates that effective internal communications help increase employee job satisfaction, morale, productivity, commitment, trust and learning; improve communication climate and relationships with publics; and enhance quality, revenues and earnings. Here are some examples:

  • Employees who are disloyal to their organizations, or lack commitment to helping organizations achieve their goals, may cost business $50 billion per year in quality defects, rework and repair costs, absenteeism and reduced productivity, according to Alvie Smith, former director of corporate communications at General Motors (cited in Cutlip, Center & Broom, 2006).
  • Improving the quality, adequacy and timeliness of information that employees receive about customers, the organization or their own work can improve their individual performance by as much as 20-50 percent (Boyett & Boyett, 1998).
  • More than 80 percent of employees polled in the US and UK said that employee communication influences their desire to stay with or leave an organization. Nearly a third said communication was a “big influence” on their decision (Burton, 2006).
  • The 200 “most admired” companies spent more than three times as much on employee communications as the 200 “least admired” companies (Seitel, 2004).
  • Employees’ satisfaction with communication in their organizations is linked to organizational commitment, productivity, job performance and satisfaction and other significant outcomes (Gray & Laidlaw, 2004).
  • Organizations with engaged and committed employees were 50 percent more productive than those organizations where employees weren’t engaged. In addition, employee retention rates were 44 percent higher in organizations with engaged and committed employees (Izzo & Withers, 2000).
  • Positive communication climate and effective employee communication strengthen employees’ identification with their organizations, which contributes to an organization’s financial performance and sustained success (Smidts, Pruyn & van Riel, 2001).
  • Sears Roebuck found that creating a more compelling place to work for employees led to a significant increase in employee attitude scores, customer satisfaction scores and revenues (Rucci, Kim & Quinn, 1998).
  • A significant improvement in communication effectiveness in organizations was linked to a 29.5 percent rise in market value (Watson Wyatt, 2004).
  • Effective communication facilitates engagement and builds trust, which is a critical ingredient in strong, viable organizations (Grates, 2008). Engaged employees enhance business performance because they influence customer behavior, which directly affects revenue growth and profitability (Towers Perrin, 2003).

The Evolution of Internal Communication

Social theorist James Coleman (1974, 1990) traced the rise of large organizations and claimed they have changed communications practices and personal relationships through two powerful interactions: big organizations communicating with other big organizations and with individuals. Large organizations were relatively new in the early 20th century, apart from government and the military, so theories developed to explain how organizations worked and tried to achieve their goals. This section outlines five theoretical approaches that evolved in the last century–the classical, human relations, human resources, systems and cultural approaches. Communication features or characteristics of each approach are briefly described. More comprehensive treatments may be found in many communication texts, e.g., Harris & Nelson, 2008; Miller, 1995; and Modaff, DeWine & Butler, 2008.

Classical Approaches

Sometimes referred to as the machine metaphor because of how employees were viewed as interchangeable parts, this approach is grounded in scientific management theories of work and workers in the early 20th century. Frederick Taylor (1911) was the best known proponent of this approach. He studied factory production lines and concluded that work processes could be improved by applying scientific principles to jobs and workers. These included such things as designing each task to improve performance, hiring workers who possessed characteristics that matched each job and training workers and rewarding them for productivity achievements.

Henri Fayol (1949) believed that operational efficiency could be improved through better managerial practices. He prescribed five elements of managing (planning, organizing, command, coordination and control) and 14 principles of administration. Fayol also introduced the “Scalar Chain,” which represents organizational hierarchy, and said that communication needed to follow this chain to reduce misunderstanding. During times of emergency, however, he indicated that employees might communicate with each other across the organization. This first notion of horizontal communications came to be called “Fayol’s bridge.”

The German sociologist Max Weber (1947) developed a theory of bureaucracy as a way to formally establish authority and structure operations and communications. Some key components of this approach included: a distinct chain of command with centralized decision-making; clear delineation of tasks and responsibilities; and writing everything down to avoid misunderstandings.

Communication features: Two key communication goals were to prevent misunderstandings, which might impair productivity or quality, and to convey decisions and directives of top management. The formal structure of organizations drove top-down communication, primarily through print channels. The content of most communications was task or rule oriented. The social side of communication was largely ignored, and employees relied heavily on the grapevine for such information.

Human Relations Approaches

In the 1930s, the focus shifted from work tasks to employees and their needs, and the Hawthorne Studies spurred this movement. Carried out at the Western Electric Company in Chicago, the studies revealed the importance of groups and human relationships in work. Elton Mayo (1933) and his Harvard colleagues discovered that employees who worked in friendly teams, with supportive supervisors, tended to outperform employees who worked in less favorable conditions. This and related research became the basis for the “human relations” approach.

Chester Barnard (1938), an AT&T executive, highlighted the functions of organizational executives and their role in communication. He emphasized the importance of formal and informal communications to the organization’s success and argued that cooperation among workers and supervisors was crucial to improving productivity. In his view, the key to cooperation was communication: “The most universal form of human cooperation, and perhaps the most complex, is speech,” he wrote (1938; cited in Modaff et al., 2008, p. 50).

Though writing later, McGregor (1960) perhaps best articulated principles of the human relations organization through his “Theory X” and “Theory Y” presentation. These approaches focused on opposing assumptions that managers may hold for workers, and the corresponding behaviors of managers. Simply put, Theory X managers believe workers lack motivation, resist change and are indifferent to organizational goals. Thus, managers must provide strong, forceful leadership to direct and control employees. Theory Y managers believe employees are highly motivated, creative and driven to satisfy their needs for achievement. The role of managers, then, is to elicit those tendencies through employee participation in decision making, managing by objectives and problem solving in work teams.

Communication features: This approach included more F-T-F communication and acknowledged the importance of internal communications. Downward communication still dominated, but feedback was gathered to gauge employee satisfaction. Some social information was added to the task-oriented content of communication, and managerial communications were less formal.

Human Resources Approaches

The human resources approach (Miles, 1965) was widely adopted by organizations in the 1960s. This participative, team approach to management-employee relations recognized that employees can contribute both physical and mental labor.

Blake and Mouton (1964) developed a Managerial Grid to help train managers in leadership styles that would stimulate employees’ cognitive contributions, satisfy needs and help the organization succeed. The preferred team-management style–high on concern for both people and production–became the basis for management development practices in a number of companies. Quality control circles, decentralized organizations, total quality management and employee participation groups are manifestations of this approach.

Focusing more on organizational structure, Rensis Likert (1961, 1967) theorized four organizational forms and labeled them System I through System IV. Likert believed that a System IV organization, characterized by multi-directional communication and a participatory style and structure, would spur productivity gains and reduce absenteeism and turnover.

Other theorists argued that the best leadership style would vary from one event to another, depending on contingencies in the environment. Fiedler (1967) said that leaders should first define a contingency and then determine the most appropriate leadership behaviors to deal with it. Contingency theory recognizes that organizations and environments are constantly changing, and there is a need to monitor environments and carefully analyze information before making decisions.

Communication features: Communication became multidirectional and more relational. Feedback was sought to enhance problem solving and stimulate idea sharing. Innovation content was added to social and task information in communications. Concepts of employee trust and commitment emerged as important issues, and organizations began to share communication decision-making among employees.

Systems Approaches

In the 1970s some theorists adopted a systems perspective, viewing organizations as complex organisms competing to survive and thrive in challenging environments. In general systems theory, any system is a group of parts that are arranged in complex ways and which interact with each other through processes to achieve goals (vonBertalanffy, 1951, 1968). An auto supply company, for example, consists of a number of departments or units (production, marketing, finance, sales), each of which includes individuals and teams. The functioning of any of these units or subsystems relies on others in the organization; they are interdependent. The company is also part of a larger supra system–the automobile industry.

Systems and subsystems have boundaries that are selectively opened or closed to their environments, allowing the flow of information and other resources. Open systems use information exchange (input-throughput-output) to grow and thrive; closed systems don’t allow much information to move in or out. To survive and adapt, all social systems require some degree of permeability (Stacks, Hickson & Hill, 1991).

As Almaney (1974) suggested, communication is a “system binder” that links the system to its environment and its various subsystems to each other. Individuals who exchange information with other systems or groups (customers, government personnel, suppliers) are boundary spanners. Media outlets provide other important links between organizations and the environment.

Weick (1979) used systems theory to explain organizational behavior and the process of sense making. He argued that communication is the core process of organizing; through information produced by processes or patterns of behavior, systems can increase their knowledge and reduce uncertainty about the complex environments in which they operate.

Communication features: Communication is vital for exchanging information in and among subsystems through multidirectional channels which are used in internal communications. Feedback processes help systems adjust, change and maintain control. Collective decision-making processes and shared responsibilities for communication are more prevalent.

Cultural Approaches

Cultural approaches emerged in the 1970s in the context of increasing competition from Japan and other nations in the global marketplace. Culture refers to an organization’s distinct identity–the shared beliefs, values, behaviors and artifacts that an organization holds, which determine how it functions and adapts to its environment (Schein, 1985). As the performance of American corporations declined, management scholars looked for other explanations of the behaviors and practices in the troubled companies. The cultural approach was attractive because of its dynamic nature and the kind of depth insights it can provide (Schein, 1996).

Two popular books in the 1980s influenced organizational practices and structures and helped culture gain mainstream recognition. Deal and Kennedy’s (1982) book, Corporate Culture: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life, claimed that companies could improve their performance by developing a “strong” culture based on shared values, celebration of heroes and performance of rites and rituals, among others. The Peters and Waterman (1982) book, In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies, captured characteristics of “excellent” cultures at high-performing businesses. These included customer focus, employee empowerment, trust, shared values and lean organizational structures. A decade later, Larkin and Larkin’s (1994) book, Communicating Change, highlighted the importance of F-T-F and supervisory communications during cultural changes or other major organizational initiatives.

Miller (1995) distinguished between prescriptive and descriptive approaches to examining organizational cultures. A prescriptive approach views culture as “something an organization has” (p. 108) and prescribes interventions to create or manage a “winning” or strong culture. However, scholars often adopt a descriptive approach, which considers culture “something an organization is” (Miller, 1995, p. 108). This approach rejects the notion of a one-size-fits-all cultural formula for success and focuses on how communications and interactions lead to shared meaning. Descriptive approaches also call attention to other important aspects of organizational culture, e.g., power relationships and gender and diversity issues.

Communication features: The cultural approach valorizes communication, seeing it as a culturally-based process of sharing information, creating relationships and shaping the organization (Brown & Starkey, 1994). Communication and culture share a reciprocal relationship (Modaff et al., 2008). Communications help create and influence culture through formal and informal channels, stories, shared experiences and social activities. Culture influences communications because employees interact though shared interpretive frameworks of culture, e.g., distinctive company vocabulary, valued media channels and established protocols and practices.


These five approaches demonstrate how internal communication changed as organizations grew and evolved. Today, elements of all five approaches live on in organizations–work rules, hierarchies, policies, training programs, work teams, job descriptions, socialization rituals, human resource departments, job descriptions, customer focus and so forth. Corresponding communication practices also are present today in formal, top-down communications, bottom-up suggestion programs, horizontal communications among team members, myriad print and electronic communications and new dialogue-creating social media that are changing communication structures and practices.

New perspectives continue to appear. Some use metaphors to depict organizations (Morgan, 1986) and internal communication (Putnam & Boys, 2006). Others focus on power, gender or hegemony issues in modern organizations (e.g., Mumby, 1993, 2001). Still others theorize companies as learning organizations, arguing that the only sustainable source of advantage for any organization is its ability to learn, acquire knowledge and change faster than others (e.g., Senge, 1990; Senge et al., 1994). Increasingly, researchers adopt cultural or co-creational views wherein employees and members share stories and construct interpretations and meanings through internal communications and conversations (Botan & Taylor, 2004).

“As their role has evolved from ‘conveyors of information’ to strategic business partners, communication professionals are being asked to better connect employees to the business, equip leaders with the skills and tools to effectively communicate, ensure that the right messages are ‘breaking through the clutter,’ and show measurable results–all daunting challenges.” Gay, Mahoney and Graves, 2005

The Internal Communication Professional

Curiously absent in many scholarly research articles are professional communicators or public relations specialists (Kennan & Hazleton, 2006). Much of the literature in this review suggests that internal communication has long been a struggle between the needs and desires of managers and those of employees. Professional communicators, if mentioned at all, are seen as technicians who carry out the compliance-gaining directives of executives.

But this view is changing, as is the role of communicators. Practitioners today are moving from historical roles as information producers and distributors, to advocacy and advisory roles in strategic decision making, relationship building and programs which foster trust, participation and empowerment. They help their organizations create a strong foundation for success in a dynamic world–a culture for communication that is conducive to open, transparent, authentic two-way communications and conversations.

Culture for Communication

Public relations excellence theory is grounded in a systems perspective (Dozier et al., 1995; J. Grunig, 1984, 1992; L. Grunig, J. Grunig, & D. Dozier, 2002). The role of public relations is to help organizations develop and maintain mutually beneficial relationships with internal and external stakeholders through excellent communications. Excellence theory also describes some factors that facilitate or impede creation of a culture for communication. These include: 1) a participative culture where employees are empowered, 2) a two-way system of communication, 3) a decentralized, less formal structure and 4) programs that treat men, women and minorities equitably (Grunig, & Grunig, 2006).

Sanchez (2006) claimed, “How an organization conceives and manages communication does more to tell about its culture than any other single process element” (p. 40-41). He was referring to communication planning, budgeting, staffing and policies. Seitel (2004) cited a Fortune magazine report in which the top 200 “most admired” companies spent more than half of their communication budgets on internal communications. This was more than three times as much as the 200 “least admired” companies. Colvin (2006) reported that the 100 “best companies” share the view that effective and ongoing two-way communication is the foundation for employee motivation and organizational success.

Rhee (2003) found in a comprehensive case study that employees who have positive relationships (high levels of commitment) with their organizations help develop positive relationships with the organization’s publics. In addition, publics assess an organization based on the quality of employee relationships with their organization. Important factors in employee-public-organization relationships include: leaders’ communication behaviors, the extent and quality of F-T-F communication, listening skills, opportunities for dialogue and the involvement of leaders in PR activities (http://www.instituteforpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2003_Rhee.pdf).

Internal Communication and Social Capital

Kennan and Hazleton (2006) outlined a theory of internal public relations based on social capital theory. Social capital is “the ability that organizations have of creating, maintaining and using relationships to achieve desirable organizational goals” (p. 322). Social capital accrues through communication, interaction and development of relationships inside and outside of the organization. The use of social capital gained through communication may increase employee satisfaction, commitment and productivity, as well as customer satisfaction.

Trust is the basis for productive relationships, cooperation and communication. Shockley-Zalabak et al. (2000) argued that trust is social capital which directly affects an organization’s ability to deal with change and crisis. They found that trust impacts the bottom line because it influences job satisfaction, productivity and team building; it also was linked to lower incidences of litigation and legislation. Brad Rawlins has provided a comprehensive review of trust on this web site (http://www.instituteforpr.org/essential_knowledge/ ).

Four Contemporary Issues

Organizations confront many challenges in today’s turbulent global market. They must process continuous changes and shifting workplace demographics, assimilate new technologies, manage knowledge and learning, adopt new structures, strengthen identity, advance diversity and engage employees–often across cultures and at warp speed. Internal communication lies at the center of successful solutions to these issues, and professional communicators must play key leadership, strategic and tactical roles to help their organizations resolve them. This section briefly reviews four issues affecting current practice:

1. Organizational Identity

Identification is a big concern for organizations because of the difficulties of being heard in a noisy world and disappearing organizational boundaries (Cheney & Christenson, 2001). Thus, organizations seek to create an identity that distinguishes them from others and ties employees more closely to them. Organizational identity has its roots in social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1976, 1986), which refers to an individual’s self-concept that grows out of membership in social groups. Group identity refers to an individual’s sense of what defines “us” versus others. Employees or members also can develop an identity with their organizations (Ashforth & Mael, 1989; Mael & Ashforth, 1992). Haslam (2000) found that communication reflects and creates social identities, and shared identity helps build trust and shared interpretations.

Smidts, Pruyn and van Riel (2001) found that effective internal communication strengthened employees’ identification with their organizations, more so than perceived external prestige. A strong company identity can boost employee motivation and raise confidence among external stakeholders (van Riel, 1995). As Williams (2008) noted, however, a new generation of employees, less inclined to identify with their employers, requires new approaches to identity building. This may include greater use of new dialogue-creating media and e-communication groups. It also may require more employee interactions with customers and social causes, improved leaders’ listening skills and higher quality F-T-F communication (Rhee, 2003).

2. Employee Engagement

According to D’Aprix (2006), engaging employees more fully in their work is the most important issue facing organizations. Engagement refers to “unleashing the full energy and talents of people in the work place” (p. 227). Long an issue, it is more crucial today due to a dynamic marketplace, an information-saturated work place and trust and morale problems exacerbated by waves of downsizing, restructuring and corporate governance problems in the past 15 years (Burton, 2008). Employees are inundated with so much information today that they are overwhelmed, confused and work with the “volume off” (Grates, 2006).

Professional communicators can help by aligning words with actions, building relationships and conversing with employees rather than communicating at them, and helping guide authentic executive actions which reflect organizational purpose. Burton (2008) suggested that new technologies help engage employees by personalizing executive communications and reinforcing face-to-face initiatives. Edelman’s white paper (“New Frontiers,” 2006) on employee engagement provides a number of ideas for using social media to better reach and engage employees. (http://www.edelman.com/expertise/practices/employee_change/index.html).

The benefits of an engaged workforce are clear. Izzo and Withers (2000) found that organizations with engaged and committed employees were 50 percent more productive than those where employees weren’t engaged. Employee retention rates also were 44 percent higher. A Watson Wyatt (2002) study found that companies with more engaged employees produce greater financial returns. Engaged employees contribute discretionary efforts, which they otherwise may withhold (D’Aprix, 2006).

3. Measurement

Professional communicators agree that measurement of their work is crucial, but they share few standards for what or how to measure. As a result, many measurement practices are tactical in nature rather than strategic and ongoing (Williams, 2008). In addition, organizations are struggling to set objectives for new social media and to measure their effects in internal and external communication initiatives (Edelman, 2008).

Sinickas (2005) and Williams (2003) provide useful guidelines for conducting audits, developing surveys and other measurement tools, evaluating program results and analyzing and reporting data. Gay et al. (2005) outlined a variety of approaches communicators use to measure the ROI on their work. These include: cost savings measures (e.g., idea development programs); employee surveys, pulse surveys and focus groups for specific communication projects; and business outcome measures (e.g., retention, productivity, customer satisfaction and quality factors). A significant but seldom measured ROI on employee communication is the reduced cycle time for change associated with mergers, acquisitions and other culture-changing initiatives (Berger, 2008).

Employee communication case studies for Sears, Roebuck & Co. and General Motors (http://www.instituteforpr.org/research/employee/) offer specific examples of company measurement approaches. The GolinHarris Corporate Citizenship Index provides a larger picture (http://www.golinharris.com/news_rel.php?ID=86) of the contributions that effective and authentic communications make to developing public perceptions of corporate citizenship.

Though steady advances are occurring in evaluating internal communication projects and programs, better measures are needed to assess linkages among communications, longer-term outcomes and desired behavioral changes.

4. Social Media

The Cluetrain Manifesto (Levine et al., 2000) put businesses on notice that the Internet and Intranets were radically altering the marketplace and the nature of stakeholder relationships. New social media facilitate a “powerful global conversation” in which everyone can participate and share opinions, ideas, knowledge and images with each other, and circumvent traditional gatekeepers. Middleberg (2001) claimed that apart from F-T-F communication, no other channels “allowed people to say things more creatively, expressively, precisely, and powerfully than the Internet” and other new media (xii).

Social media refer to new electronic and web-based communication channels such as blogs, podcasts, wikis, chat rooms, discussion forums, RSS feeds, web sites, social networks (e.g., MySpace and Second Life) and other dialogue-creating media. Social media are revolutionizing communications and reconfiguring the long-time S-M-C-R model of internal communication (Williams, 2008). New media increase the volume, speed and every-way flow of communication, connecting people, giving them a voice and stimulating discussions about topics of common interest (Smith, 2006).

Holtz (1999) wrote one of the first comprehensive resource works for practitioners to help guide strategic use of new media. He also co-authored books explaining how practitioners can develop and use blogs (Holtz & Demopoulos, 2006) and podcasts (Holtz & Hobson, 2007) to dialogue and interact more effectively with employees and other stakeholders. However, external PR specialists and marketers have adopted new media more quickly than internal communication professionals. In part this is because organizations no longer control communication, so new media require professional communicators to rethink tactics, strategies and their own roles.

Burton (Insidedge, 2007) referred to social media as “me” communications, which challenge communicators to use them to stimulate employee engagement, provide relevant information and capture employee insights and issues. This means moving the professional role from one of information distribution to open dialogue, letting go of the notion of control, listening closely to others in the conversations, communicating honestly and equipping managers and supervisors as primary communicators.

Edelman’s Trust Barometer (http://www.edelman.com/trust/2008/) found that trust in media is increasing in part because new social media are now perceived as being an important component of more traditional mass media. A comprehensive study by The Society for New Communications Research (http://www.instituteforpr.com/) underscored the growing use of social media by professional communicators to disseminate information and engage publics. Communicators in the survey also rated highly the effectiveness of such media in achieving campaign goals, though measurement of social media is in the early stages.

For communicators, social media are here to stay. They also will continue to evolve, possibly to the point blogger Shel Israel suggests, where “people will be able to behave and interact online as they do in everyday life” (http://redcouch.typepad.com/weblog/2008/08/the-future-of-s.html).

On the other hand, new media have not killed or replaced traditional media, but rather influenced them and forced them to adopt (Holtz, 2006). Like all channels, new media represent advantages and disadvantages, and communicators must carefully analyze and assess their best use.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” George Orwell, 1946

15 Principles of Successful Internal Communications

Effective internal communication is hard work, but research findings and case studies point to some practices and principles which seem crucial to successful internal communications for organizations, employees and members. Here are 15 of them:

Timeliness and Content

  • Providing timely and relevant information to individuals, through channels they use and trust, and in language they understand, remains the basis for successful and strategic internal communications.
  • Communication content should provide context and rationale for changes or new initiatives as they relate to the organization, but especially to the relative performance or requirements of employees in local work units. This underlines the importance of the supervisor’s front-line role in communication.


  • Face-to-face communication is the richest medium. It should be emphasized in internal communications, especially to resolve conflicts or crises, communicate major changes and celebrate accomplishments.
  • Excellent listening skills reduce errors and misunderstanding, help uncover problems, save time, improve evaluations and facilitate relationship building. Development of excellent listening skills among leaders at all levels in organizations is crucial.
  • Social media are fast and powerful dialogue-creating channels which can empower and engage employees and members. They influence and alter traditional media and their uses, but don’t eliminate them. Communicators should blend new and traditional media in ways that help organizations best achieve their goals and enhance relationships with internal and external publics.

Leadership Roles

  • The CEO or senior leader(s) must be a visible and open champion for internal communication. Visibility is the first and most basic form of non-verbal communication for leaders.
  • The communication style of leaders should invite open, ongoing and transparent discussion so that people are willing to voice their opinions and suggestions.
  • The actions of leaders at all levels must match their words. This has everything to do with credibility and the extent to which employees will trust, commit to and follow leaders. As author Carolyn Wells said, “Actions lie louder than words.”

Professional Communicator Roles

  • Professional communicators must see themselves as internal experts on communication who serve as facilitators and counselors to executives and managers and provide strategic support for business plans.
  • Communicators must also be organizational experts. They must possess knowledge of the organization’s structures, challenges and objectives, as well as understand employee issues and needs and marketplace requirements and realities.

Participation and Recognition

  • Encouraging employee participation in decision making builds loyalty and commitment and improves the overall climate for communication. Participative decision making also often improves the quality of decisions.
  • Recognizing and celebrating achievements at all levels helps build shared values and organizational identity. Similar social events, rites and rituals contribute to and reflect an organization’s distinctive culture.


  • Measurement is a key to successful communication in any organization. Through diverse forms and approaches, measurement helps define problems, determine the status quo, record progress, assess value and provide a factual basis for future direction and action. Improving measurement knowledge and practice is an ongoing professional requirement.


  • Ongoing two-way communication is the foundation for employee motivation and organizational success. Two-way (now every-way) communication provides continuous feedback, which is crucial to learning and to processing organizational change.

In addition to achieving specific goals, internal communications should help create and reflect a culture for communication, where employees at all levels feel free to openly share ideas, opinions and suggestions. This will enhance employee understanding, build trust, stimulate engagement and encourage greater diversity.


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