They’re the backbone of any business, but so often back of the line when it comes to comms. Why do we continue to overlook line managers when we know that line manager comms is a perennial problem?


1st June 2021

Communication involves more than just making sure information has been heard. The people we trust at work and the way they convey news have an impact on the way we understand or feel about business messages.

At work, by and large, line managers are cited as the most trustworthy source of information when it comes to business updates, and, as the link between frontline employees and the wider organisation, their effect on employee engagement is sizeable.

Typically promoted for their impressive technical skills, line managers aren’t always natural born communicators. Yet not enough is being done to support and guide them, and they’re often left without the tools or drive to communicate important messages effectively.

They’re a vital asset to the delivery of internal comms, but they are not always treated as such. By taking the time to understand the barriers they face, and equipping them with tools, skills and information, IC teams can empower this influential channel and help them to become more effective communicators.

Elevate line managers’ importance

Daniel Lambie, senior consultant at employee engagement agency scarlettabbott, says: “Line managers are the buckle in the belt of an organisation, but if they’re asked to cascade information to their teams at short notice or with little to no background information, they may feel like an afterthought.

“Internal communicators need to help them feel valued and make clear the important role they have to play in connecting colleagues to key information.”

Sue Dewhurst, an internal comms specialist and author, agrees, adding: “I’m sympathetic towards line managers – generally I see them doing their best under difficult circumstances.

“They are piled with responsibility for lots of communication, often at no notice. We often bank on them for everything, expecting them to talk about things they don’t understand or agree with.”

Ahead of major updates and changes, take the time to talk to line managers and brief them on what you need them to communicate. Bringing them in early will help them see the importance of their communication task and allow them to seek clarity so that they pass the message on in a knowledgeable and meaningful way. It will help complex strategic messages or news about other parts of the business feel less daunting to explain to teams.

This can also be a valuable opportunity for line managers to feed back on a project, piece of news or the way it is being communicated – they may identify aspects that could confuse or alienate their teams. If you use this time to get line managers’ perspective, you not only get their buy-in to the change and show them they are a key part of the IC community, but you may save yourself a headache down the line if you can reshape a message to make sure it will engage everyone.

“It’s very important to bolster your communities and get line managers on your side, particularly during change,” says Daniel. “Bring them into the conversation early on and test their understanding. If you give them the opportunity to co-author the core narrative and advise on what their people will want to know most, you will strengthen authenticity, relevance, and create a sense of ownership.”

Sue knows all too well what can happen when you fail to open up dialogue with line managers and give them the motivation to share messages effectively.

As an in-house comms manager, she recalls how a disillusioned line manager chose to brief his team on what had, in theory, been a carefully planned announcement for their organisation with the following comment: “Look at this. Shafted again! Shows how ‘valued’ we are, doesn’t it?”

Sue explains: “We had sent out an explanation and talking points to managers about a change we knew had the potential to be received badly if it wasn’t positioned carefully. However, the email had simply been forwarded on with an ‘FYI’ by person after person, until eventually it reached this particular team with this message from the line manager. It was so frustrating.

“It illustrated powerfully that the way line managers frame things – the slant they put on a message or the way they direct a discussion – can affect people’s views and feelings about an issue.”

Establish the tools needed

Line managers – where they lack the skills or appetite for communication – are often a barrier to wider engagement. Therefore, IC teams that assume line managers have the tools, experience or intuition to share news in engaging, informed or creative ways can find messages are delivered flatly with no explanation about why they are important or what it means for the team.

Knowing how to communicate effectively is a skill, so ensure your organisation has training available to line managers to help them improve their confidence and ability in this area. Alongside training, line managers would benefit from a toolkit that they can refer to when it comes to the practical aspect of delivering messages.

Toolkits should explain the purpose of internal comms and include guidance on how to brief colleagues and expert tips and advice that will allow line managers to take ownership of the way they deliver messages.

This will undoubtedly be useful as a supporting resource, but for ICers to really empower line managers and give them what they need to make information relevant and interesting, they need to understand their audience and their challenges.

“Shadow them, spend time with them and try to understand how to make things easier for them,” advises Sue. “They know their team members best and the barriers that prevent engagement, so work with them to find practical solutions to overcome this.”

WE ASKED: Which of these actions or tools would most improve line manager communication in your organisation if they were introduced or, if already in place in some form, improved?

39%    A comms training programme

30%    Internal comms running focus groups with line managers

19%    A dedicated online space

12%    A comms toolkit

Empowering line managers

Last summer, Daniel and scarlettabbott worked with BT on the communication of a major strategy refresh that was too complex for managers to simply pass on.

“We produced lots of material specifically for around 6,000 line managers – stuff they could feel that they own, not feel they had to just take and repeat like a parrot,” explains Daniel. “We wanted them to feel empowered.”

A key initial exercise was to ask line managers to read the strategy and test their knowledge. “We did this as a simple game – to match goals against strategic pillars,” says Daniel. “We then asked managers to interpret the strategy at a local level, pulling out specific areas of focus and actions that could make the strategy tangible for teams. The most important thing was to make it relevant locally so that line managers had greater confidence to run their sessions.”

Other materials helped line managers set up, prepare and run virtual sessions. A presentation pack included comprehensive speaker notes, including background information, short explainer animations and video content. A detailed guide offered help and advice to help managers get the best from their meetings, as well as examples of interesting activities they could include if they had the time.

Martin Fitzpatrick, senior internal communications manager for BT, says: “We didn’t want them to feel that the task of making sessions interesting was all on them.”

Providing comprehensive resources for line managers to use when communicating important strategic conversations will help to make the user experience as consistent as possible. That said, ensure that whatever assets you provide offer scope for line managers to fit the content and format to their team’s specific needs.

“All of the teams that our managers lead are different,” says Martin. “Some are office-based, some work in contact centres, others are engineers out on the road.

“At BT, our pack reflected this by making sure managers had a variety of tools and options to draw on so that they could build the best session for their teams. Some ran longer, more in-depth sessions, while those leading operational teams leaned more heavily on the animations and videos during shorter sessions.

“We also offered advice on activities that would help managers and their teams discuss and agree their goals for the coming year, ensuring that what they planned to deliver locally aligned clearly with the strategy.”

Speaking the same language

The hard work has paid off, with measurement showing good engagement, including thousands of posts from line managers on BT’s internal social network sharing business updates, asking questions and discussing goals.

One of the biggest indicators of success was how quickly line managers adopted the new language of the strategy in their day-to-day interactions with their teams.

“Previously, people on our social channels talked about ‘our service story’ or ‘our SME strategy’ – things that were similar to, but noticeably different from, our actual strategy,” says Martin. “Since the refresh, we see line managers sharing their work and that of their teams – and they are using the language from our strategic pillars. It’s particularly noticeable on our social channels where our frontline colleagues are sharing their stories, using that exact language.”

A post roll-out review revealed every team used the framework provided by internal comms. “Because we helped managers understand how to make the proof-points local and relevant, they didn’t feel the need to change the key messages,” says Martin.

“The two biggest contributors to success have been supporting managers to better understand what we wanted to achieve and giving them the flexibility to build sessions and messages that worked best for their team.”

For Daniel, there was another key indicator: “The best bit of feedback I’ve had was through another client, whose husband is a senior manager at BT. She told me that he came home after receiving the toolkit and said simply, ‘I now understand what internal comms does.’”

Different cultures, different roles

Culture clearly plays a huge role in an organisation in empowering people. But what about when you have to contend with national cultures too?

Moni Mukherjee is part of the IC team at Franklin Templeton, a global investment firm. She’s based in Hyderabad in India, but also leads the team’s efforts in the Asia Pacific region, as well as a site in Poznan, Poland.

When the C-suite sends out a global cascade, Moni needs to think about how that will translate for smaller offices, where there are different cultures and regional nuances.

“Even though globally we’re dispersed and have different roles, we all have to feel part of the same company – part of the big story,” she says. “Our teams in Hyderabad are not customer-facing. They are more focused on operations and technology. Often employees in India are more in contact with their direct line manager for firm updates and news, so we’ve been working on how we empower these managers.

“We’ve started regular townhall meetings with local managers, with a mix of global and local news, helping them feel part of the big picture. We’re also providing them with toolkits – Q&As, cheat sheets, that sort of thing – to help them interpret and translate messages for local markets and feel equipped to answer questions.”

Meanwhile, 4,000 miles away in Poznan, the culture is different – employees ask more questions, voice more opinions and have more social interactions within their office.

“Yammer is a big thing there,” says Moni, “so we have leaders doing live chat sessions. We call them Yam Jams, and they are very simple and informal – a manager might say something like: ‘Hey I’m on from 2-3pm today to answer your questions on X subject.’

“As internal communicators, we prep the leaders, but we want these chat sessions to be in real-time, open and honest. They are very popular. This approach isn’t suitable for all offices however, and, as internal communicators, we need to be aware of this.”

Go big on the details

Dan Holden, senior internal comms officer for Which? Consumers’ Association, agrees that different approaches are needed. Part of his role is supporting communications to call centre colleagues.

“Call centre managers are incredibly busy, swiftly moving from one colleague to the next to answer their queries, so I don’t expect them to have much spare time for me. Instead, I go to them and ask what I can do to make their lives easier in making sure their teams know what they need and want to know.”

It’s a common problem – line managers are often time-poor, dealing with demands from above and below, so clarity is key, advises Dan.

“Communicators need to make it very clear to managers what we’re asking them to do – for example, ‘This fortnight, we need you to do this, and this is why…’

“Give them the context – I’ve found a lot of managers don’t understand why they are being asked to do something, so they are ill-prepared to brief properly and answer questions. Naturally, employees then think, ‘Well, if you don’t know, what’s the point in me asking?’”

Dan says they’re also careful not to refer to briefings as cascades. He says: “All that happens, of course, is line managers forward the briefing and think it’s job done!”

Channel or hurdle?

The biggest hurdle for the IC sector when it comes to line manager comms, says Dan, is not about which tactics to use, but how they are viewed. So, ask yourself this: how do you support line managers as a channel?

“I feel that we’ve got to develop line managers in the same way as you would, say, your intranet,” reflects Dan. “If you’re willing to invest in an intranet, then why wouldn’t you spend some budget and resources on developing a line manager channel? And if you’re not doing that, then why would you expect them to be an effective channel?

“Line managers are one of the most trusted sources of information, so we need to understand their role and help them with what they need in order to communicate effectively.

“Don’t feed them with the problem – feed them with the solutions.”


3 golden rules for supporting your line managers

1. Make line managers feel important

Given the importance of line managers’ communication role, IC practitioners probably don’t spend as much time as they should talking and listening to this audience to find out how to improve the process.

Firstly, when communicating news, show line managers you care about what they and their teams think by briefing them in advance, getting feedback and, where needed, making adjustments or providing additional content to support them in making the information relevant.

Additionally, invite a cross-section of line managers to a focus group and ask for honest feedback around what the IC team can do better or differently; ensure the format is a two-way dialogue. Make sure line managers feel they can be open. Formulate your discussion topics around the obstacles you face in getting key messages through line managers to the wider workforce.

Find out:

  • what is lacking from the information IC sends, and what else line managers need to know
  • what element of delivering messages line managers feel least comfortable about
  • what challenges line managers face around communication, eg time constraints, a cynical workforce
  • how they prefer to receive information from IC. What channels do they need?

2. Give line managers the tools and skills they need

Create – and keep updating – a toolkit explaining the purpose of internal comms, with guidance on how to brief colleagues.

Explain the different channels, and their pros and cons. Particularly, include tips on preparing and leading effective team meetings; understanding the messages and how to deliver them, especially if communicating change; listening to questions and feedback, and evaluating and evolving meetings.

If you have held focus groups, include advice on areas line managers have said they find challenging. Include branded assets – logos, icons, presentation templates – in your toolkit so that line managers can create their own documents.

Ensure training is in place in your organisation to improve line managers’ confidence in this aspect of their role.

Training for line managers should cover:

  • why internal communication is necessary and what good communication can achieve
  • how to make sure messages are clear and memorable – through storytelling, for example
  • how different styles of delivering a message – enthusiastic and knowledgeable vs half-hearted or uninformed – make a difference to how news is received
  • how to share information as part of a dialogue – listening and responding to team members’ questions and feedback.


3. Build understanding and a sense of community

Create a space on your intranet where line managers can access news and updates; or/and a place on your drive with content. Make it a useful place they want and need to visit every day.

Write or repurpose content with this audience in mind – clarify the points they need to know and share, and why they need to know it; summarise the main messages they need to pass on; and highlight links to learn more. The hub on your server could include articles, factsheets, films, presentations and other background information so the line manager can better understand the topic.  

A weekly newsletter for this audience could direct line managers to new articles or documents.

Take time to segment content (and newsletters) – by site/region or operation type, as well as groupwide – so that line managers can find relevant content and understand where their team’s work fits in to the big picture. Line managers and their teams will better understand broad organisational objectives if it is presented with a local context.

Include “get in touch” links so that line managers can contact IC directly to ask questions, share concerns or offer input on future updates on a topic. Also, consider how your online space can encourage line managers to interact with each other to share best practice.


Leave a comment

To leave a comment on this article, please complete the form below. Your comment will be posted once verified by our editorial team.

If you are not an IoIC member and would like to join to receive Voice and other membership benefits, visit our Membership page.

Room Booking

Thanks for staying with us! Please fill out the form below and our staff will be in contact with your shortly. The see all of our room options please visit the link below.
See All Rooms