Workplace Communication between Supervisors and Subordinates

According to Messersmith & Kelley (2012), supervisor-subordinate communication is a fundamental topic in business communication. The researchers begin by acknowledging that the supervisor-subordinate relationship is a microcosm of an organizational structure but has significant complexity that necessitates insight. They continue and insist that in ideal organizations, communication conforms to organization structure. Therefore, supervisor-subordinate communication is formalized by the command structure of an organization and forms relational contexts. The command structure leads to implications such as employee agreement, psychological contacts, and face works. The study states that the three implications “regularly drawn upon by organizational members to help them make sense of work directives” (Bisel, Messersmith & Kelley, 2012, p.131). The researchers link between macro and micro-level observations of supervisor-subordinate communication by competency, theorizing it as the most critical component of organization communication. They explain that communication competency enables effective communication through a command structure, despite the hierarchical mum effect’s impacts. The hierarchical mum effect is defined as “refers to individuals’ reluctance to provide negative feedback to one another for fear of being associated with the message” (Bisel, Messersmith & Kelley, 2012, p.135).

The study supports that an optimum communication practice involves learning and communicating (sharing) knowledge. Both practices have been expressed as critical, as they form the grounds for adapting and servicing in the organization. The study also suggests that subordinates should practice boat rocking for organizational learning. Bisel, Messersmith & Kelley (2012) believe that challenging the status quo of an organization enables employees “o scan for internal deficiencies and external threats and then communicate that information to supervisors, who likely have more authority to enact and coordinate functionally adaptive changes” (Bisel, Messersmith & Kelley, 2012, p.138). However, employees do not always do so, and they have been challenged to overcome their fears and challenge their organizational relationships, which is among the ways of optimizing supervisor-subordinate communication. A better approach uses an anonymous channel for supervisor-subordinate communication, which the authors believe will overcome the hierarchical mum effect.


All these practices have featured in my experience with communication between superiors and subordinates; not all have been optimal per se. For instance, my organization is not extensively hierarchical, and thus, there are minimal instances of the hierarchical mom effect. Most communication between superiors and subordinates is free and has increased levels of knowledge sharing. The level of inquiry and questioning policies and philosophies is very high and has contributed significantly in optimizing other organization practices. Besides, the organization’s philosophy has focused on employee retention, and thus, most of the newly recruited employees find themselves in a highly learning environment. Therefore, learning and knowledge sharing are relevant practices for optimal communication between superiors and subordinates.


Bisel, R., Messersmith, A., & Kelley, K. (2012). Supervisor-Subordinate Communication: Hierarchical Mum Effect Meets Organizational Learning. Journal Of Business Communication, 49(2), 128-147. doi: 10.1177/0021943612436972