What are expressive and instrumental communications?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Generally, in discussing types of communications within organizations, including businesses, there are two main categories: expressive and instrumental.  The distinctions between the two are basic, but important.  Instrumental communications are those considered concrete and explicit.  They include directives, legal and administrative documentation, codes of conduct, and other forms of communication for which room for interpretation is intended to be very limited and completion of a task the primary objective.  In contrast, expressive communications are considerably less formal, less structured, and, depending on the circumstances, less authoritative.  Expressive communications include impromptu conversations, unofficial emails or memos transmitted among members of the organization in question, and working meetings arranged for the purpose of sharing ideas and information in preparation for completion of a particular task or attainment of an organizational goal.  Unlike the formal structure and content of instrumental communications, expressive communications may be completely devoid of substance relative to the organization’s mission. 

An example of an instrumental communication could include a legally-binding contract in which two or more parties agree to each produce or supply some kind of goods or services, or, conversely, agree to refrain from an action that could prove deleterious to one side’s interests.  Another example could be a written directive to an employee instructing him or her to take specific actions consistent with a broader organizational objective.

An example of expressive communications could include conversations in a snack room around the vending machines during which employees or members of the organization informally discuss a number of unrelated matters, one or more of which might revolve around organizational requirements and individual responsibilities, or might simply focus on the effects of the lateness of the preceding night’s televised sporting event on employee motivation that day.  Another example could involve one member of an organization suggesting to another a particular direction in which he or she believes the organization should be moving, and whether to approach senior-level management with such a proposal.

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