Line Manager Communication: Tips for Activating Managers as an Effective Comms Channel

Middle managers are often unfairly stereotyped as communication roadblocks. Portrayed as “the frozen middle,” people managers get a bad rap for not cascading information accurately. Manager communication is essential in every organization, however, so we’re setting out how to engage managers. Adding managers as internal comms advocates can be another strategic IC channel.

People managers can be a powerful two-way communication channel for organizations. But managers aren’t just conduits to pass information from HQ to frontline employees. They are real people with personal preferences and traits; some of them will be natural communicators and some won’t.

In her 2023 webinar, the internal comms leader Victoria Dew of Dewpoint Communications suggested that if managers are perceived as “the frozen middle,” it might be because their employers are not giving them the right training and resources.

It may not be a lack of commitment or talent that is freezing them, but a lack of information. She pointed out that if managers are frozen, internal comms, HR, and people experience leaders must thaw them back to life.

If you need to thaw some people in your organization, we’ve got tips that will help.

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Why you should be using managers to cascade information

It’s no secret that the manager-employee relationship is the most important “official” personal and professional connection in every organization. 

Whether you look at quantifiable data (managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement) or just turn to workplace cliches (“people quit bosses, not companies”), managers matter. 

In dispersed and flexible work environments, a manager may be the main connection between employees and senior leaders. If you are working remotely or in a retail location, you probably won’t see the CEO much. In these cases, managers become organizational substitutes. 

That’s good news for CEOs. 

Analysis of the Edelman Trust Barometer found that employees who trust their managers are more likely to trust the CEO. The researchers found that “corporate leaders can improve how credible they seem by focusing on the relationships employees have with their frontline leaders. Trust, in other words, trickles up. “ 

If manager communication matters for employees and business leaders, they should matter even more for communicators and HR teams. Why? Because their position, presence, and support make them an exceptionally relevant channel for cascading information. Managers can also gather on-the-ground feedback and help communications get seen and understood. 

Why should you try to get buy-in from people managers? Managers are often responsible for cascading information; they are the first port of call for questions; they are well-placed to receive direct feedback or gauge staff sentiment. Here are some more reasons why they are a good fit. 

  • Senior and middle managers are already more satisfied and committed than anyone else. OECD data shows that managers report higher job satisfaction than senior and junior professionals. They’re already well-disposed to act as advocates. 
  • They are physically present in locations such as stores, warehouses, fulfillment centers, healthcare facilities, and more. They may be the only person there with access to the intranet or a corporate email address. For retail and other frontline-dependent industries, managers are an essential connective thread. 
  • Engaged properly, they are perhaps the most resource-friendly channel. If you work in a small comms team or as a solo communicator, managers can enhance your multichannel communications strategy without adding the cost of a new comms platform.  
  • It is more effective to deliver some news in person (and from someone you trust. For example, it may be more impactful in terms of software adoption to announce news of a new learning and development platform with the help of middle managers. Rather than a centralized dictat, managers can contextualize the announcement as part of a person’s professional growth and current responsibilities.

Why are managers a barrier to communication?

Given their obvious importance to cascading information, line managers should be a shoo-in for IC and HR teams, but there are a few barriers to activating manager communication in a meaningful way. 

People managers don’t typically get promoted solely for their communication skills. Instead, they ascend to managerial roles primarily due to their experience, technical education, or proficiency in their field. Consequently, there might be a skills gap since these managers may not have received adequate training in effective communication.

“Two-thirds of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees” 

Harvard Business Review 

For more on the skills gap in manager communication, please read our article on How to improve communication between managers and employees 

In these cases, it isn’t just managers who struggle with communication breakdown. In one survey, a troubling 91% of employees think their bosses are bad communicators. 

Despite this – and the knowledge that line managers may lack the necessary soft skills to become effective managers – few organizations invest in formal training or upskilling.  

The resulting impact of poor communication on staff is significant, damaging, and far-reaching; triggering everything from employee disengagement to potential safety incidents and staff turnover. 

But a skills shortage isn’t the only reason. After all, managers can’t pass on information don’t have. 

As Victoria Dew noted, frozen middle managers need IC support to thaw into action.

How can internal communications support line managers?

There is no magic bullet to activating and engaging every manager or employee with company news and events. When planning out different tactics to improve manager communications, however, it’s worth bearing in mind the following tips.

#1. Consider manager personas as well as employee personas

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Naming a class of people as “middle managers” and expecting them to act in a unified way is wishful thinking. Like everyone else, people managers are individuals with their own needs and preferences. 

For optimal engagement, segment managers like every other internal audience. How might you do this? Victoria Dew suggests considering which training courses people have undertaken, the role type they have (frontline or desk-based, for example), or the number of cross-functional teams they are part of. 

Understanding these and similar factors could allow you to create an engagement heatmap of High, Mid, and Low engagement managers across the organization. With this, you can create separate communications strategies with different “WIIFM” messages, action plans, and channel choices.

#2. Give managers access to different tools and skills

Internal communication is now a multichannel process that includes everything from email newsletters to AI-powered intranet pages. This is partly because different groups of employees respond to different types of communication. Corporate comms teams are already adapting to this by using a variety of tools, but if manager communications are part of your cascade strategy, then they may also need to be more multichannel and multidimensional than simply face-to-face meetings or emails. 

This may range from giving them content author training and permissions on your intranet, to top tips on using the company enterprise social network (ESN), project management tool, or collaboration platform. If employees understand information better through Asana tasks or Slack channels, that may be a consideration for effective communication. 

In today’s digital workplace, there is often an abundance of different tools available: speak with your line managers to determine what will meet their needs and provide guidance on what channel is appropriate according to the communication they’re delivering.  

Supplement this with regular skills training: covering everything from how to write an effective internal blog or update, to delivering presentations, communicating during a crisis, or delivering bad news.  

Workshops that focus on the value of internal communication are a powerful way to help managers improve, but the skills learned are also often transferrable to other aspects of their role, making IC skills a fundamental part of professional development.

#3. Get feedback from managers on the comms challenges they face

Just like the employees they’re managing, line managers are individuals with different perceptions of their challenges and opportunities. Taking the time to understand their unique situations can help to resolve potential barriers to effective line manager communication and to improve the relationship between IC and the managerial level. 

They may face geographic challenges with employees in different time zones. Or perhaps they have non-native English speakers who are harder to connect with when corporate comms are only in English. Perhaps some line managers in your organization have issues with confidence when delivering face-to-face communication, or when handling disputes or confrontational situations.  

In cases where IC roadblocks come from a lack of accessibility or resources, work with managers to find practical, workable solutions.

#4. Create a line manager communication toolkit

Providing practical resources can improve the volume, consistency, and quality of line manager communication. This is particularly true if one of the common barriers to advocating for company comms more actively is that people lack the time to create great-looking content. 

Toolkits take on a variety of formats and may include email templates, business update layouts, writing tips, examples of previous communications for inspiration, and easy access to brand materials or image repositories. 

Ensure everything in your toolkit is centrally stored and easy to access or download.  

Perhaps the most notable recent development, however, is the emergence of generative AI. Thanks to AI-enabled intranet platforms, AI-based writing assistants are making it easier for people who are not professional communicators to create, edit, and feel confident about different content formats. 

Within Interact, the AI tool allows any intranet author to perform a variety of functions, including creating content, expanding text, summarizing and simplifying, checking language for inclusivity or sentiment, and much more. 

These revolutionary technologies make it possible for managers and subject matter experts to unlock the expertise in their heads for a wider variety of employee audiences. 

For a full rundown of image-, video-, and writing-focused AI platforms, check out our article on free internal communication tools.

Free ebook – 14 steps to great internal communication

Discover the essential elements in an effective internal comms plan with this practical guide.

#5. Give line managers early access and pre-briefs to change management projects

For major or potentially disruptive business communications – for example, a leadership change, an office move, or mergers and acquisitions – ensure that line managers are fully equipped to address the questions that will follow.  

Employee anxiety about change should be expected, and it’s a feeling that can only be cleared up by regular, transparent communication. One of the keys to managing change and getting buy-in from employees then lies in activating managers to act as knowledgeable advocates.  

Give them early access to information and provide resources such as FAQs, summaries, and talking points so they have everything they need. If possible, bring all managers together for a pre-brief to let them ask questions and collaborate on how best to manage the process. 

One powerful technology tool to support this is a permissions-driven intranet, which can surface content to specific user groups only. For example, you might change the homepages of everyone in your organization who is responsible for managing another person, so that they see different, additional content to those they manage. Having this extra content on the homepage makes it visible for the managers but means you cut down on emails and conversations. 

All this work should also help managers to focus on the “why,” ensuring they’re aware of the reasons behind the changes: and how the news will impact their teams.

#6. Remind them that it’s OK to say, “I don’t know”

Line managers can often feel the pressure and responsibility to be an authoritative source of information, which can increase stress for them and result in them not wanting to participate in future manager communication cascades. 

It’s important to debunk the false perception that saying “I don’t know” is a sign of ignorance, apathy, or a poor management style.  

If people do believe this, there is a greater danger of them not admitting they don’t have all the information and just voicing speculations or incorrect information. This could undermine trust if rumors spread and people start to believe fake news.  

Mitigate this risk by ensuring your line managers know where and who to consult if they don’t have the answers themselves. An organizational chart and fully populated profiles on your intranet are a great starting point. A single intranet page for the project can also list those who have responsibility for different aspects of the plan. 

It may also help to centrally gather, publish, and answer all the questions and ideas that managers have from their teams. You can create a single FAQ covering the questions that everyone is asking, and this will help all employees to self-service the information from a reliable, trusted source when the news is public.

#7. Plan in stages and deliver manager communication incrementally

Some areas of software development use the concept of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) as a way of testing a product before it is rolled out to all users. 

An intranet MVP, for example, would be an early-stage version of the platform that does not have all the eventual features and content that the “full” intranet will have, but that is still an important stage in testing and learning. It is rolled out to key stakeholders in the organization to act as a prototype and gain buy-in or provide training. If flaws or challenges are identified, this is the time to root them out. 

Manager communications may be similar. Rather than releasing news to every single manager at once, you might choose to begin with a pilot group (e.g., those in one country or region) and then work with them to understand information gaps. This will allow the second rollout to be more effective. 

Another way to use the MVP idea within manager communication is to pilot comms projects with specific audiences as a way of removing blockers and increasing general engagement. Some managers will already be more engaged than others, so you may try working with the unengaged ones first, knowing that if you can increase engagement with them then you’re likely to have a bigger base when it comes to future announcements.

Free ebook – 14 steps to great internal communication

Discover the essential elements in an effective internal comms plan with this practical guide.

#8. Create a dedicated community or space for your line managers

One of the most powerful ways to continually improve is by learning from our peers. Even if the people managers in your organization are widely dispersed and operating in completely different teams, it’s shared and relatable. They will probably already be sharing notes in small groups, but opening that to a wider audience could be productive for everyone. 

Creating a dedicated space for managers – whether that’s a virtual space, such as a team or community area on your intranet, or a physical space such as a quarterly managers’ meeting – is essential.  

Here, managers can share experiences or challenges, ask for support and advice, and gain insights into best practices. The process of talking through their difficulties will make them better at identifying, communicating, and solving problems, ultimately making them better managers.

Empower line managers to improve manager communication

Manager comms and information cascades are important in many organizations, especially those with a lot of frontline or offline employees who don’t have access to corporate news or culture updates. 

Keeping everyone aligned and engaged in those situations becomes yet another job that falls to people managers who may already be overburdened. 

It is important though as it helps information to become communication, and using managers as a trusted voice can embed information in a more immediate way than digital communications alone. 

The age-old question is “What can communicators do to get more managers on board?” 

It’s never going to be an easy solution but an organized internal communications team using an advanced intranet can play a powerful and crucial role in supporting line managers to be better at communicating. The most productive approaches still seem to be consultative and advisory rather than didactic and punitive about why people aren’t passing on the information they’ve been given well enough. 

Centrally micromanaging communication within a manager-to-team relationship risks undermining authority and confidence, or even making the manager’s voice sound inauthentic. Instead, we can help to improve line manager communication by enabling and empowering managers.

Free ebook – 14 steps to great internal communication

Discover the essential elements in an effective internal comms plan with this practical guide.