Topic: Organizational Communication

Author(s), Title and Publication

Grunig, J. E. (1975). A multi-systems theory of organizational communication. Communication Research, 2(2), 99-136.


This classic article presents a theory of organizational communication that explains how different communication behaviors are motivated by individual and structural characteristics of people and situations. According to the theory, whether systems (including individuals, units within organizations, organizations, publics, and groups) will communicate (acquire and disseminate information) depends on whether the individual or structure is cognitively open or closed to a situation.

Based on these two dimensions (system/individual and structure) and the cognitive characteristics (open and closed), four types of decision behaviors are possible: problem facing, constrained, routine habit, and fatalism. Problem-facing behavior occurs when both individual and structure recognize the existence of alternatives (e.g., problems) and need information to make a decision. In this situation, the system/individual seeks and disseminates information actively. Constrained behavior occurs when the system/individual is open to, but the structure is closed to alternatives; the system/individual acquires information to try to eliminate the constraints. Routine habit behavior occurs when an open structure makes alternatives available, but the system/individual considers only a habitual alternative, and disseminates information to defend its habitual behavior. In fatalistic behavior, the system/individual neither recognizes a problem nor has alternatives available within the structure, and has no ability or interest in controlling the environment. The four decision behaviors help explain behaviors of individual, systems, and subsystems of an organization. Ten combinations of the four behaviors could be used to explain communication between two systems, or inter-organizational communication.

Grunig’s theory is supported with data from five studies of communication at several system levels: 1) employee communications in a utility company, 2) a consumer information program in a food and general merchandise chain, 3) organization-clientele communication in a community development agency, 4) total organizational communication (public relations communications), and 5 an inter-organizational communication in a community.

Implications for Practice

Professionals may want to use the theory as a framework for assessing communication behaviors, communication patterns and the relative openness of their organizations. Problem-facing behaviors seem to drive the dissemination of information, which in today’s social media world may be much easier and faster to do and can assit an organization in being more transparent.

Location of Article

The article is available online at: (abstract free, purchase full article)



Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
Follow on Twitter

Leave a Reply