Middle managers know the workforce better than anyone, so their ability to deliver messages well is key to an organisation’s success. How can IC teams provide them with what they need to construct their role as a model communicator? 

3rd January 2019

At the top of every organisation is a leader. Charismatic, often. Visionary, sometimes. Powerful, certainly. At the bottom are the heroes of the frontline: clocking in each day, rolling up their sleeves and getting the job done.

In between sit the ranks of middle managers, who can count on having tasks and pressure piled on them from above and below. It’s tough in the middle. 

And yet, without middle managers, nothing would happen.

These men and women who work between the top floor and shop floor possess vast stores of knowledge and skill that just don’t exist elsewhere. They connect people with purpose, moulding and motivating those around them. They spot problems, invent solutions, and carry on without asking for thanks.

Middle managers don’t just lead the business or work for the business, they arethe business. They know this – and perhaps, secretly, everybody else knows it too.

Internal communicators certainly ought to know it – they need middle managers more today than ever before. Not only do line managers play a vital role in spreading information throughout the organisation, they also have the potential to take work off the hands of the internal comms team, who are then free to pursue the more strategic, advisory role to which they aspire.

The spinners of social webs

Business strategy expert Quy Nguyen Huy has done extensive research on middle managers and what makes them valuable to organisations. In a 2001 Harvard Business Reviewarticle based on a six-year study, Quy wrote that middle managers usually have the best social networks in the company. 

“Many start their careers as operations workers or technical specialists,” states Quy. “They build webs of relationships that are both broad and deep. They know who really knows what to get done and how to do it. Typically, their networks include unwritten obligations and favours traded, giving effective middle managers a significant amount of informal leverage.”

The IC Space, a project promoting internal comms excellence in government, has produced a communication guide for managers, which says: “When managers inform and involve their teams with the activities and priorities of their organisation, not only is the organisation more productive, but their employees are happier, more resilient and more motivated.”

The recent rise in remote, part-time and flexible working has made it more important than ever for line managers to make the effort to communicate well with their teams. In fact, middle managers are often the difference between the success and failure of internal comms.

Illusions and unfulfilled expectations

According to a quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw, the biggest problem in communication “is the illusion that it has taken place”. Internal comms professionals often fall into the trap of pushing out communications to managers and considering the job done.

Olga Klimanovich recently authored a guide for internal comms software and advisory service provider Poppulo on helping line managers communicate better. As a change, communications and engagement consultant and executive coach, she has seen the world of internal comms from both outside and in. 

“When you are in internal comms, you think you’re doing everything right, you prepare all these cascade materials and then you sit and wait and things don’t happen,” she says. “There is this expectation that the line manager will do the job, and that’s where the system breaks – it only happens when they are talented managers who understand the importance of comms.”

Breaking down barriers

Unfortunately, it seems that many lack those talents – or the time or inclination to acquire them. The annual State of the Sector survey by comms consultancy Gatehouse finds that poor line manager communication skills are seen as the single biggest barrier to the success of internal communication, with 56 per cent of respondents highlighting this as an issue. So how can internal comms support and motivate middle managers to be better communicators?

Richard Bridge, CEO of internal comms agency Top Banana, says the benefits to staff engagement make it vital for line managers to be able to communicate well. 

“If you can communicate effectively with your team, and get them on board in terms of how what they’re doing is making a difference, then they’re much more likely to deliver more.”

Louise Thompson is head of communications for nursing at NHS Improvement, the national improvement body that supports NHS trusts. She says it is becoming more important for managers to communicate better – both internally and externally. 

“These people aren’t just your employees. They may be your customers, or your partners,” she reflects. “You need to treat them as stakeholders, and make sure you’re engaging them, and taking their views into account.” 

It’s particularly true in the NHS, she adds, because staff tend to be public-facing. 

“You need people to feel they’re part of that collective purpose, because we’re out engaging with patients on a daily basis. In local communities, the hospital is right at the heart. There is a real social fabric that employees are part of.”

Giving confidence to communicate

The relationship between senior leaders and line managers will have a big impact on how effective they are at communications. A 2016 study by the Chartered Management Institute and Top Banana highlighted the trust gap between managers and senior leaders, and called for improved transparency and communications to help bridge it. 

In the survey, only nine per cent of middle managers said they were always asked for feedback on the information they were given, and just 31 per cent said they felt confident communicating company information to their reports. They blamed this on a lack of information from the top, and a lack of trust in senior leaders. 

While 80 per cent of middle managers believe they are very important in building a trusting workplace culture, less than a third said they were actually being made to feel important in this regard. Clearly, there is much room to improve.

Firstly, it’s important that organisations prioritise communication skills for managers and leaders. Richard Bridge says: “The challenge for middle managers is often they get promoted to be managers because either they’ve been there a long time or they’re doing a great job, and they don’t necessarily come with the skills required to become a great communicator.”

Strong comms skills make strong leaders

Managers may assume that, because a person exists with the title of internal communications manager, that internal comms is taken care of, and they don’t need to worry about it themselves. Wrong. 

Olga says: “When I worked in leadership development, I realised that the strongest leaders are the ones with the strongest communication skills. You can see that very mature organisations with established processes for leadership look at communication more.

“And by looking at this more, you create this pull factor when managers start appreciating they need to pay attention to this. You create a natural interest, rather than us, sitting in our communications ivory tower, trying to push it on managers.”

The higher managers want to go up the ladder, the more time they’re going to spend dealing with their teams, and so the more important it will be for them to communicate effectively.

However, Olga reckons that the majority of organisations don’t give sufficient value to communications – meaning internal comms needs to be helping managers and using measurement to make the case for paying more attention to comms. Her advice is: “Go and talk to your talent colleagues. Understand how much value is given to communication and, if none, I’m sorry, but then you’re back to creating your own little pushes.” 

Training managers in communication can make a big difference. If you can’t get budget for dedicated comms training, make sure the skills are covered in general training. Make sure you include a focus on listening skills – communication needs to go both ways. 

Personal coaching, mentoring and shadowing can also help – so identify those managers who are already great communicators and use them to share how they do it. 

Draw in managers at all times

Ironically, it may be easier to secure senior buy-in when times are tough than when times are good. 

Jamie Morgan, head of internal campaigns at the Department of Health and Social Care, says the challenges come when things are going well.

“Internal comms are quite often called upon at times of great change or when there is significant reorganisation and transformation,” he says. “In a negative situation, internal comms suddenly becomes an integral part of all conversations from senior leaders down to junior staff, so managers want to be equipped with communications. When the coast is clear and it’s business as usual, that’s the biggest challenge, because then we need to shout louder to earn our place at the table.”

Avoid the mistake of overlooking middle managers completely. Make sure they are prioritised as stakeholders when planning any communications. 

Louise Thompson says: “The first thing is to recognise that middle management layer as a really important internal communications stakeholder group and prioritise them in your campaign planning. If you’re thinking about a campaign, you may think about what leadership needs, and then frontline and factory floor – but often what gets missed is that middle layer. These people could go quite a long time without having any interaction at all with a senior leader in your organisation.

“These managers may sometimes feel like the ‘frozen middle’, because they feel the leaders at the top know what they’re doing and the troops might have an understanding because they hear things around the corridors. Sometimes leaders can be so keen to talk to people on the frontline, they forget to prioritise managers as well.”

Equip and empower

Once you’ve made sure that the real value of comms is properly recognised and that line managers have been identified as important stakeholders, begin looking at the skills that internal comms can help middle managers develop.

Jamie says: “On the one hand, it’s simple to say we need to equip people to do that job, develop toolkits, etc. But as we all know, if you just put something out and don’t educate people, then you’re not going to get the desired result.

“So I think it’s a lot about empowering people, not just equipping them. We’re equipping them with toolkits, but they might also need confidence or skills or to have the regular channels in place to use.”

Don’t throw the book at them

When preparing materials for managers, the usual comms principles apply: short, simple, clear. 

Louise says: “Keep it brief, keep it completely jargon-free and human, give people clarity when you can. Be honest about the areas where there might not be an answer yet, and give people routes to find things out.”

Olga agrees that comms for line managers must be short and relevant, “which is always the opposite of what you want to do”. 

“You want to write a book and give it to them,” she says. “But it’s much more effective to say: ‘Here are three key things. If you need more, here’s where to find more.’ Don’t push a huge manual on to them.”

Supporting reluctant communicators 

Inevitably, you will come across middle managers who simply aren’t very good communicators. How can internal comms help them and work with them?

Olga advises setting up “champions groups” of engaged managers and asking them what they think would help their peers.

Richard adds: “Help bring them along. You’ve got to ask, why are they like that? Are they shy and not that extrovert? Is it that they don’t like standing in front of people? Often they’ve been made a manager because they’ve done a good job, not because of their people skills.”

Then there are those managers who are not motivated or on board with whatever message you’re trying to send out. 

Richard considers: “There are saboteurs, but often only because that’s a cultural thing, so the challenge is for the leader: how do you engage and deal with those as a part of your plan? It comes from the behaviour of leaders.”

His advice for handling these saboteurs is to “involve them in the process, get their buy-in, get the negative ones or the ones who don’t understand the value of communication and make them the ambassadors”.

If managers can’t do it, others can help make sure messages get through. 

Delegating everyday comms tasks

While bringing middle managers into the comms mix adds a string to their bow, and should help the employees they oversee better engage with messaging and strategy, there’s a more self-serving reason for internal comms professionals to want to build comms skills among managers. 

For years, internal comms people have aspired to more strategic roles, moving away from just sending out emails, to becoming trusted advisers to leaders, and influencing business strategy. If they’re going to succeed in that, they need to free themselves up to be guiders and curators of content, rather than doers, by getting others to support them with the more everyday work.

IC practitioners need to create the space they need to demonstrate their ability to influence and be strategic – and can do so by assigning some comms responsibility to line managers. 

Olga Klimanovich is positive about the potential of communications professionals to step up to the plate. “Comms needs to do something about it or nothing will change,” she says. “We need to own it.


6 tips for supporting middle managers

1 Get to the point. Keep communications brief and focus on what managers need to know. Don’t overestimate how much time and energy people will put into receiving your messages.

2 Give them their due. When tailoring comms for senior and junior staff, it’s easy to overlook those in the middle. When designing communication strategies, be sure to prioritise line managers as a key stakeholder group.

3 Be a help, not a hindrance. Remember you’re not the only one hovering over the desk with yet another thing to add to a line manager’s to-do list. Show how being better at comms can help them perform better – and make their lives easier.

4 Let them be themselves. People communicate best when they’re able to be themselves. Make sure line managers stay on message, but don’t force them to use a particular style or voice. Let them handle it their way – it will be more authentic and more effective.

5 Measure. It’s just good practice. But measurement also gives you a way to prove to managers themselves that being a better communicator is valuable for them and their career.

6 Get leaders on side. There’s a lot you can do with better materials and support. But more powerful than any “push” from below is getting senior leaders to create a “pull” from above.


The full version of this feature appears in the January 2019 print issue of Voice.




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