Getting Line Managers to communicate

As communicators we all know the importance of leadership in delivering key strategic messages to employees. But during a recent discussion with a client on line manager communications one thing particularly struck me.

We were talking about the amount of effort that senior teams seem willing to put into briefing the highest managers about new developments and general unwillingness to invest the same energy with lower level leaders.

Several people talked about fantastic programmes for the top people in their organisations which just didn’t really cascade onwards.  It’s almost as if the CEO and the executive team expend all of their energy thinking about the session for the inner circle and then run out of steam or budget to push the message into the deep tissue of management.

So what can a communicator do to support the cascading of messages through the middle tier of management? In my view there are five essential steps to great line management communication;

Have you told them it’s their job?

Being a team leader or supervisor is tough enough – and if something is not obviously your job are you going to worry about doing it? Yet, according to research from publishers Melcrum, a tiny number of organisations actually have a clear set of competencies for comms skills for supervisors – and often these tend to be light on detail.

The challenge for the communication, then, is to get their organisation to explain clearly what is expected of managers – this might appear in the competency model or in a statement from the CEO endorsing specific responsibilities.

….And tell them often

The other challenge facing many managers is that they don’t know what is expected of them on specific occasions.  We might send out the CEO’s announcement and hope that team leaders will have the good sense to discuss it with the people who work for them.

But those team leaders won’t naturally realise that they need to check that people understand the announcement and there are still plenty of managers out there who don’t think they need to reassure their staff.

So good practice for communication is to include in manager packs simple instructions or requests of managers. For example, you might send a pack containing an announcement that is to appear on the intranet – but make sure you include a cover sheet saying what managers need to do.  Should they make sure everyone in their team has seen the announcement?  Should they hold a meeting to discuss local implications?  Should they send feedback to someone in the organisation?

And remember that managers move around, get promoted or reorganise their teams. There are a million and one distractions, so don’t be embarrassed to keep telling people to do the same thing.

Who’s told them?

Picture the scenario.  Your management team has been debating the new strategy for months.  There have been presentations from consultants.  There was a big row but after the extended offsite meeting at a country club they have resolved their differences and are ready to launch the new direction for the organisation.

And how do they do it?  It is so hush-hush that the first most managers know about it is when they receive a briefing pack telling them that there is going to be an announcement and that they need to follow it up with a team meeting to discuss the issues.

What do you think the chances are that those local managers will do anything or do it effectively?

And when communication goes wrong – how likely is it that the senior people in the firm will blame the middle management ‘marzipan layer’ for frustrating their efforts to paint a picture of a bold new world?

Good practice is to invest twice as much time in briefing the line managers as you expect them to spend on their teams.  You need to find time to allow:

  • Managers to test for themselves whether they agree with the message being suggested
  • Them to make sure they really understand the message themselves
  • People to hear how everyone else is going to handle the issue
  • Senior figures to role model how they expect communications to happen.

Ways of achieving this include pre-brief announcement meetings, regular monthly update calls or holding annual manager conferences.

Have they been trained?

Communication for leaders is not a natural skill or ability – and unsurprisingly many managers have a deep-seated fear of actually talking to groups.  And even if they are fearless performers, not everyone knows how to plan a message or how to vary their style to generate a debate or facilitate a problem-sharing session.  Others can be woeful when it comes to handling questions.

Team communications is also more than managing a presentation – the challenge is to help managers prepare properly, vary their style and to involve people.

However, this is not to say that they don’t need to be able to speak in an engaging and compelling way.  You don’t have to have the oratory skills of Barack Obama to be a good leader.

So what should training cover? Think about dividing it into two parts; confidence and delivery, and preparation and planning. The former should cover facilitation skills and how to handle difficult questions so that managers realise this an attempt from employees to understand the new reality. The latter helps managers to avoid looking foolish.

Have they got the tools they need?

Managers often complain about the poor quality of materials they receive to support communications. Common gripes include PowerPoint packs that are written for financial analysts and no one else or Q&A packs that include neither questions that anyone could ask nor answers that anyone sentient could believe.

Invest some time talking to managers about what they find useful.  Often their homemade tools are far better than anything comms can dream up so it is worth borrowing from them.

Most importantly – give them what they need to do the job.  Sending the same old rubbish, month after month, isn’t going to win you any friends.

Also, consider sending nothing.  One organisation we know provides managers only with a template that they fill out during a monthly meeting with their divisional head.  It contains sections where they write in the main messages as they hear them as well as prompts like ‘what questions are my people going to ask?’ and ‘where can I refer people for more background?’ It means that managers are coached through important elements of the communications process month after month.

Is anyone listening?

If managers think no one cares whether they communicate or not, then why should they bother investing time in it?

At its most basic, scores for communication from the annual engagement study can be used for appraising managers. However, few organisations do this because the data is rarely collected at a level that relates to specific managers.

And the crucial piece?

Following these steps will certainly improve line management communications. But you get a real impact if you make sure that managers really understand the message that you are trying to share.  If you can do only one thing I would say concentrate on briefing managers – get them on-side and educated and you’re half-way home.

But we seem to be missing the point.  Instead we often fail to develop an onward flow of information and get left wondering why junior leaders don’t think communication is a priority…