Time to talk seriously about middle manager messaging

Many supervisors don’t see internal communication as part of their job description—or if they do, they lack adequate training to handle it properly. What’s at stake? Employee engagement.

In my work, I often ask other communicators, “Are your people managers doing enough to communicate with their teams?” in surveys, audits, one-on-one discussions and more.

It’s telling that I can count on the answer being a firm “no” nearly 100% of the time.

When people managers are not actively communicating, it can impede the effectiveness of the best laid communication plans. At the organizational level, when managers are not communicating—especially with customer-facing frontline employees—it can erode alignment, efficiency and engagement.

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Organizations with high employee engagement can routinely tie that to higher levels of productivity, profitability and customer experience. Yet employee engagement at most organizations remains stubbornly low. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workforce, only 15% of employees worldwide are engaged in their jobs.

One clear downside: When employees are not engaged, it’s often because of their manager—and it’s easy to leave an organization. (Fifty percent of employees who quit jobs cite a bad manager as the reason.) Combine that with the historically low levels of unemployment, and it means that engagement levels become a true drag on recruitment and retention efforts—one of the most expensive things in which any organization invests.

On the positive side, research also shows that managers can improve engagement by using communication-based behaviors. Gallup research also shows that more than 50% of employees who strongly agree that their manager is open and approachable are engaged.

Communicating about communicating

If one method for improving employee engagement is having people managers communicate more actively and accountably, why isn’t that happening?

The No. 1 reason I hear inside organizations and hear regularly from other employee communications professionals is the expectation that managers should be communicating was simply never set—nor communicated to them.

Of course, simply telling managers to communicate isn’t a mysterious, magical engagement booster. Nor will telling them to communicate likely spur much action. Success of a manager communication effort requires a programmatic approach.

Data about what is and isn’t working in an organization must be gathered. There is a wealth of information online to draw from, such as the Gallup details above. Your efforts will be most effective when you conduct an assessment of manager communications inside your own organization.

Expectations call for training

Managers need to hear they are expected to communicate but also must be trained with “Communication 101” skills. Those include taking an outcome-based approach to communication (that is, “What do I want someone to think, feel or do after I communicate this information?”), establishing that communication is dialogue and that it’s as important for managers to listen as it is to repeat information they have been given.

Once managers are trained, they need information and content to help their communications—information that is easily accessible and easy to tell it’s the “latest and greatest.” That requires us communicators to consider what information managers need—and how to make it easy to use—when we expect them to help us communicate organizational or team news. It also requires us to take a firm accounting of how we are sharing and storing that information, so that it’s easy for managers inside and outside the office to find and use it.

We also have to accept that not all employees can be reached through any one channel anymore and communications may be delivered in several ways, several times, to truly influence and inform our frontline teams.

Most important, “one and done” efforts aren’t enough. Any program needs sustainability and the ability to scale built in, so that as managers come and go from an organization they all receive the same baseline expectations, orientation and training.

It does help to consider the reality of managers in today’s and tomorrow’s workplace. Doing so can easily overcome expected objections from managers about communicating.

Communication as a performance metric

Rarely have I seen an organization tie a manager’s performance or compensation to a communication requirement. That makes it easy for a manager to assume communication is only the professional communicator’s job, or that he or she “isn’t paid” to communicate. Data will help you overcome this objection. Countless surveys show that employees expect and desire to hear information and priorities from their direct manager.

I am confident any survey you conduct of your employees will show the same. Additionally, reminding managers that we are asking them to communicate in partnership with us helps. Ideally their efforts will both amplify our own internal communication programs and reach employees with personalization and translation in a way we would never have time to do when working across an entire organization.

Managers are, justifiably, busy people—and in today’s lean organizations they are often responsible both for individual goals and managing others. It’s easy for a manager to think they simply don’t have time to communicate.

Hitting the trifecta

Three things can help overcome this objection.

1. Showing that communication is a “how” skill, not an item to be added to overloaded to-do lists. In fact, most research shows that communication ability is a key attribute of a strong leader.

2. Setting expectations. I’ve had more than one manager—when asked about attending training—assume that communication equates to public speaking with large crowds. In fact, if managers can hold regular team meetings, help their team understand organizational objectives, and share information that helps them do their jobs, that’s a strong manager communication program.

3. Knowing that not all managers are the same, nor have the same needs. A frontline supervisor on an assembly line, or managing a call center team, has very different needs from those of a middle management leader aiming to grow into an executive. An executive has very different communication support and training needs from those of a mid-level manager.

Remote and non-desk workers are an increasing part of all workforces. That makes it even more imperative that a person—especially one based outside a big office, or working without regular access to a typical computer/desk setup—hear information, goals and feedback from his or her manager.

That fact can help you remind managers that forwarding email does not a communication effort make—and the importance of using Communication 101 skills. Those can be taught in manager communication training.

Where the onus falls

Who is responsible for all this inside an organization?

I argue that if there was ever a clear area that internal communications should own, this is certainly one of them. Empowering managers to communicate will help amplify our own communication efforts and ultimately can help boost engagement—on which we communicators are increasingly measured. Also, communication skills are second nature to us, so we’re uniquely qualified to train others.

That, of course, can’t happen in a vacuum. Our HR colleagues are key allies in this effort—and telling them that ultimately this can help engagement and retention is a surefire way to get them on board. Having an executive ally or sponsor can give you the backing to launch a new effort. In larger organizations, training teams and IT partners may be important as well.

You can get help on any or all aspects of this. Launching a sustainable, ongoing manager communication program is critically important and a big job; starting with clear objectives and a plan is key.

Keep the crawl/walk/run approach in mind—testing your new efforts with one part of the organization, or one level of manager, will provide both feedback and proof of concept before you expand your efforts organization-wide.

Universally, we know that making people managers active and accountable communicators will benefit our organizations tremendously.

It’s possible to achieve that—with a methodical approach. In fact, taking that approach could be key to our own internal communications programs’ long-term success.

Bryant Hilton is an affiliate consultant with Ragan Consulting Group. As a global communications leader, he helps clients cultivate strategies that increase employee engagement, especially during transition, growth and crisis.

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