Seven ways to get your line managers communicating

Businessman Wearing CapeI feel I may have been a bit harsh when I had a pop at managers in my last post.   I do stand by what I wrote – about managers being afraid to communicate and all that – but I feel I should at least balance up the criticism with something a little more constructive.   It just so happens that I’m designing a new training course for the Institute of Internal Communications about how we comms people can get the most from our line managers, so this may be an appropriate time to float some practical suggestions.   Here, then, are seven ways in which we can support our line managers to become informed, engaged, capable, inspired and inspiring communicators. 

See managers as human beings rather than a component of an operating model.     Line managers may have a job that gives them responsibility for managing people but they are individuals too.  They have the same pressures, frustrations, dreams, motivation and fears as the rest of us and research tells us that they are often the unhappiest people in the organisation – not close enough to the top to make decisions and reap the rewards, and not close enough to the bottom to deliver to customers and ‘make a difference’.   They are the squeezed middle – over-worked, under-valued and very often, lonely.   So we need to do our best to treat them with respect and understand where they’re coming from.   That means getting to know them and showing some empathy.

Trust them.   It can be tempting for us as communications professionals to over-support managers.   What I mean is that we often have very honourable intentions to make it easy for them – to package up the message, write it all down for them and then tell them where to stand and what to say (and how to say it).    We do this (i) because we want to be helpful, (ii) because it makes us look good and (iii) because we don’t trust them.   But the future of internal comms is not about controlling everything and we need to learn to trust a little more.   Make friends with the managers, help them believe in themselves, make them realise what power they have to inspire … and watch them surprise you.

Clear messages = clear delivery.   Of course, we need line managers to be well informed for obvious reasons, but they don’t need to know everything.   Perhaps the most valuable thing we can do for our managers is to run a tight ship when it comes to knowing what is important.    Senior leaders suffer from the curse of knowledge and they are too removed from the frontline to know what will stick, so we need to step in and manage the message with clarity and rigour.   Our job is to help create a compelling narrative that runs like a golden thread through the organisation – simple messages, well told.    If the messages line manages receive are clear, the messages they translate and connect with will be too.   So concentrate as much on the message flow between senior and middle managers as you do on the message flow direct to all staff.

Light the flames.    It’s right to step back and empower managers but we should power them too, with the skills, techniques and tools that will make them great.   I wouldn’t use the word ‘training’ – not to a manager’s face – because  they tend not to like the ‘t’ word, but I would concentrate my efforts on equipping them with the practical skills to make them better communicators.    Communication is an art, not a science, and like all artists we all have our own distinct style.    We should never try to turn our line managers into ‘best practice clones’ but we should encourage them to be themselves and offer them some hints, tips and guidance to weave into their own personal way of communicating.   This can be as subtle as a ‘tip of the week’ on the intranet or as deliberate as giving them a skills booklet (like this one on my website!) or offer them a workshop.    But concentrate on proper engagement skills, like listening, making the message stick, storytelling, creativity, building a sense of purpose and engaging through change ….. not just ‘how to deliver a presentation’.

Use peer pressure.   Gauging the right level of support, and knowing how and when to intervene, is hard to get right.    Provide too much support and the managers come to define themselves as a tool of the comms function, but if we don’t support them enough we risk creating a landscape littered with patches of good and bad practice, with little consistency.   This is where a bit of peer pressure can work wonders.   I always favour setting up a dedicated channel for line managers to enable them to check the ‘messages of the moment’, find out what’s going on and to have a nose at what others are doing.    Managers soon take notice when they see their peer group doing stuff that they’re not, so this is a good way of surfacing good practice and facilitating a forum for managers to share ideas and experiences.  Which leads us to …

Community action.    Building a community among line managers can help with knowledge sharing, consistent application and capability uplift.   The more you can get managers together – virtually or physically, the more they will generate ideas and a sense of purpose.    The peer pressure will kick-in and they’ll more willingly take on the responsibilities for comms and engagement.   If they start talking about it amongst themselves you know you’re onto something.  And it only takes a light (but important) touch from you.   Start by finding some role models and champions who already do it well.

Conversations not cascades.    Everyone knows that the Team Brief cascade system of communication doesn’t work.    Using line managers to deliver a functional outcome like passing on a message is not a good use of their leadership skills and does nothing for employee engagement.  And as we know, they won’t do it at the right time anyway, if at all.     The only way managers can truly engage is through conversation – a good old fashioned, eye-to-eye chat.    It’s in those conversations – and the questions asked – that true engagement happens – how are you feeling, is there anything you don’t understand, how can I help, what do you most enjoy doing, what could we do better, are you clear about what’s expected of you, have you any good ideas, what do you want to do next?   Those sorts of questions.   That doesn’t take training, it just takes encouragement, a bit of support, some self-belief and probably a dose of culture change.  Which is a whole different story!

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