Direct vs. Indirect Attitudes Towards Authority


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Direct communication is communication that is objective and directs an action. Through examining direct forms of communication, it is possible to gain increased insights into various cultural and organizational dynamics surrounding the communicator and the broader communication context. Because of the nature of such communication, frequently individuals with a direct communication style are actually the ones with authority. Of course, in many other instances, direct communication exists as a discernable attitude that it adopted by subordinates in relation to a manager, leader, or hierarchical structure.  

Cultural considerations factor heavily in issues related to direct and indirect forms of communication towards authority. For instance, in Western cultures, communication towards authority is direct with the message being clear and the context not being important to interpret the message (Direct Vs. Indirect Communication in the Multicultural Markets, 2017). Also a cultural component of such attitudes towards authority is the distinction between hierarchical and egalitarian approaches to communication. Hierarchical cultural attitudes towards communication necessitate that the individual engage in communication with people next in-line in the hierarchical structure rather than bringing issues to managers higher up on the institutional ladder. Although in highly efficient and cohesive organizations such a communication attitude can result in overall organizational success, in less effective contexts implementing such a hierarchical attitude to authority can hinder collaborative progress because it creates unnecessary bureaucratic difficulties. While communication attitudes based on hierarchical and egalitarian cultural constructs often occur across national cultures, they may offer occur between different organizations within the same national context (Neo, 2017). For instance, people working within the government frequently adopt hierarchical communication strategies.  

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Gender constitutes another highly important consideration in relation to direct and indirect communication approaches towards authority. In this respect, men are much more likely to adopt a direct communication style than are women. The reason that men are more likely to adopt such a communication style is complex as it seems to involve both a genetic and cultural component. Men’s direct communication style has been established in a number of empirical studies. For example, one study that examined speaking time on the Senate floor found that when time was compared between senior male and female senators with the same amount of power, male senators spoke 10% more often (Brescoll, 2011). As noted, the explanations for this communication gap are complex are complex, and most of the research has focused on the reasons women are more likely to adopt an indirect communication style. 


Indirect communication is communication that does not explicitly state an objective or action, but instead indirectly addresses such an issue. While indirect communication styles generally do not have the level of authority that is evident in direct communication styles, in many instances such communication approaches are just as critical to the communication event as are direct communication styles. Rather, indirect attitudes toward authority and hierarchical structures, as compared to direct communication approaches, more frequently seek to achieve objective goals in ways that imagine interpersonal interactions from an entirely different paradigm.  

In relation to cultural considerations, just as Western cultures typically favor direct forms of communication with authority, some other cultures are not as direct in their approach towards communication with authority. For instance, Eastern cultures, which place strong emphasis on respect for one’s elders and authority, favor less direct forms of communication than one might find in Western societies. Non-hierarchical – or egalitarian – communication attitudes also frequently occur in relation to authority, as well as a component of a cultural context. For example, frequently startup organizations in Western societies will adopt an egalitarian communication context, with even newly hired employees bringing ideas to top-level people within the company (Neo, 2017). Such a communication attitude can be highly effective in such situations because it allows for ease of collaboration and a sharing of ideas that can facilitate the forms of innovation that are critical to these companies’ success. 

Of course, while men more frequently adopt a direct communication style, women are much more likely to adopt indirect communication strategies (Sandberg & Grant 2015). The same study that found that male senators spoke on average 10% more than their female counterparts found that in organizational settings women were judged more harshly than their male counterparts for speaking up (Brescoll, 2011). Such findings are important as they attest to the reasons that one communication style is adopted over another being in-large part a cultural rather than a personal decision.  

In some instances, indirect communication has some negative aspects. Among the frequent criticism of this form of communication has been that individuals who adopt indirect communication strategies that then find themselves in a direct communication context can struggle. For example, researchers indicated that Indian software developers who came to work in the United States frequently struggled because they were not as comfortable arguing with their superiors like their American counterparts (Brett, Behfar, K., & Kern, 2009).

Still, although indirect communication may be difficult to understand for people living outside this culture and for those not aware of the context of the communication event, such a form of communication also has some benefits. Because this communication style does not assume an authoritarian or dictatorial approach, it invites greater input from others and may result in a better collaborative environment. 

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  1. Brescoll, V. L. (2011). Who takes the floor and why: Gender, power, and volubility in organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly56(4), 622-641.
  2. Brett, J., Behfar, K., & Kern, M. C. (2009). Managing multicultural teams. The Essential Guide to Leadership85.
  3. Direct Vs. Indirect Communication in the Multicultural Markets. (2017). RISMedia
  4. Neo, S. (2017). 4 Types of Communication Challenges in Multicultural Organizations – Training IndustryTraining Industry
  5. Sandberg, S., & Grant, A. (2015). Opinion | Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant on Why Women Stay Quiet at Work
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