What’s the hot channel in IC? Line managers of course.

In all the excitement about digital and social media, it’s easy to forget one enduring fact about internal communications. Line managers matter.

Building supervisors into a communications strategy should always be step one; it just doesn’t get talked about much because you don’t need to buy many expensive widgets to make it work. All you need is a bit of common sense and the answers to five basic questions.

Health warning

Before I go any further, I should warn you that line managers are not a panacea for every IC problem.

Colleagues only want to hear from their boss when their boss is an expert – no one likes to have a manager who has to busk it when they are talking about an issue they don’t understand or where they don’t know the facts.

But when it comes to translating big strategic messages into detailed tasks for the team they come into their own. We all expect to be able to say to our manager “what does it all mean for us?”

I’m a big fan of the work of Angela Sinickas in explaining this point.

Crucially, just setting up a cascade process and expecting your managers to act like animated noticeboards doesn’t work for anyone.

The marzipan layer

Perhaps one of the most insulting things I have ever heard is calling middle managers the “marzipan layer”.

Too often, local leaders get blamed because a message doesn’t travel far from the executive team. We’re too quick to apportion blame when in fact we just don’t make the job easy in the first place.

Why would a supervisor pass on a message that they don’t understand themselves, that calls for special skills to deliver and which they haven’t got time for anyway? And if they do actually try to discuss it with their teams, who in upper management is interested in hearing what staff really think?

Five steps

I think there are just five questions that you need to ask if you want to unlock the potential of line managers:

  • Have we empowered them to communicate? – Is it their job?
  • Who’s communicating with them? Do they get treated as a stakeholder or are they just expected to use mystical powers to understand what is going on?
  • Have we given them the skills?
  • Have we given them the tools? And I don’t mean emailing them the edited highlights of the CEO’s analyst presentation!
  • Is anyone listening? – If they bother starting a conversation, does anyone care about their feedback?

Nobody is perfect

Remember, hardly anyone gets line manager communications right – if they did IC would be easy! The trick is to understand where you can have the most impact – and normally I’d start by asking how well briefed managers are.

Want to know more?

Our book on internal communications explains this in more detail and includes some tips.