Line manager communication: 8 ways internal comms can (and should) help
Our middle managers are crucial to internal communication. However, they’re also not necessarily natural-born communicators. In fact, they’re cited as the second-biggest barrier to IC success in this year’s State of the Sector survey. So, how can we empower individuals so that line manager communication can flourish?
Line manager communication is a challenge that consistently ranks top of the internal communications agenda.
It’s not hard to understand why. Managers are that all-important link between the front line and the wider organization, and impact everything from morale and productivity to engagement, retention, and the employer brand.
Managers account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement.
In today’s more dispersed and flexible work environments, they may also be the only connection staff have to their organization. For those managing frontline staff in particular, who deliver the customer experience and are the face of your brand, that’s a heavy responsibility.
An overwhelming majority of line managers are promoted to position because they’re good at what they do: bringing with them technical skills, but not necessarily the skills needed to communicate to or motivate their teams.
69% of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees.
Given how important your line managers are to the employee experience of work and your business performance overall, addressing that challenge is crucial: and internal communications may be the key to breaking down the middle management barrier.
Why does internal communications need to step in?
Line managers are often responsible for cascading information from the top to their staff. They will be the first port of call to field questions around any organizational change, and the best-placed to receive direct feedback or gauge staff sentiment.
They need to connect their staff to the organizational mission or purpose, align them behind the overall business direction, and ensure each individual is confident in their role and responsibilities. They provide feedback, manage performance, set objectives. They manage individuals, who need to be communicated with as such; calling for adaptations in their style, approach, and delivery.
Middle managers should also be cascading up and out: telling the business what their team is doing, demonstrating value, providing updates and insights. They need to give their staff recognition to ensure morale and motivation.
Every single one of these responsibilities is dependent on one core skill: communication.
Despite this – and the knowledge that line managers are stepping into their roles without the necessary soft skills to become effective managers – few organizations invest in formal training or upskilling to bridge that gap.
50% of employees quit their boss, not their job.Source: HR Morning
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.
How can internal communications support line managers?
It’s important to remember that internal communication is not just a function, but a fundamental leadership competency and responsibility.
As communicators, we can help our line managers to be better: but internal communication is best done by managers themselves. In other words, we should support, steer, guide, facilitate, but NOT do it all ourselves.
With that in mind, what should internal communications teams or leaders be doing to help line managers become more effective communicators?
#1: Provide training for new – and existing – middle managers
The most obvious step is to establish a training program for those responsible for communicating internally.
New managers should be provided with training that covers the fundamentals, including the importance/value of good communication, their responsibilities as a manager, the tools or channels available, and best practices.
Show your line managers how great communication can support their team goals, objectives and morale, and the role they play in the wider picture of your internal communications strategy.
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 continually bring the value of internal communication front-of-mind are a powerful tool to help managers improve. Skills learned are also often transferrable to other aspects of their role, making IC skills a fundamental part of professional development. It’s a win-win.
#2. Give them the right tools – and support using them
Internal communication is a multi-channel process. Our employees will prefer and respond to different types of communication; it’s important, therefore, that your managers are confident using the different tools available.
This may range from giving them content author training and permissions for your intranet to top tips on using the company ESN, project management tool, or collaboration platform.
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.
#3. Talk to them
Just like the employees they’re managing, your line managers are individuals. Take the time to understand their unique challenges and potential barriers to effective line manager communication.
Do they face geographic challenges with dispersed staff ? Perhaps they have non-native speakers, who struggle with translation? Perhaps your line managers have issues with confidence when delivering face-to-face communication, or when handling disputes or confrontational situations? Or are their technical skills standing in the way of them delivering effective updates to the business on your intranet?
Work with them to find practical, workable solutions and give guidance to overcome those barriers.
#4. Create a line manager communication toolkit
Providing practical resources can be a hugely effective way to improve the volume, consistency, and quality of line manager communication; particularly if one of their common barriers is time or resource to create great-looking content.
These can range from email or business update templates to top tips, examples of previous communications for inspiration, and easy access to brand materials or image repositories. Ensure everything is centrally stored and easy to access or download.
#5. Give line managers early access and pre-briefs
For any major or potentially disruptive business communication – for example, a structural or leadership change, an office move, a merger or acquisition – ensure line managers are fully equipped to address the questions that will follow from their staff.
When change happens, staff can often be resistant, concerned about their impact on their roles, or worried about job security. The key to managing change and getting buy-in from employee lies with your middle management.
Give them early access to the information and provide resources such as FAQs or key summaries so they have everything they need. If possible, bring all managers together for a ‘pre-brief’ to give them an opportunity to ask their own questions and collaborate with each other and how best to manage the process. Focus on the ‘why’, ensuring they’re aware of the reason behind decisions, and how it will impact their teams.
If line managers are directly responsible for cascading the communication out, don’t script the message. The ability to tailor it to their staff and deliver it naturally makes it more authentic. That authenticity is crucial in helping to build trust between managers and their employees.
#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 for their staff. Despite our best efforts, there continues to be a perception that saying “I don’t know” may be perceived as weakness, ignorance, or the sign of a poor manager.
The danger of this is that those not able to admit they don’t have the information may ‘wing it’: giving incorrect information, undermining trust, or creating issues internally.
Mitigate this risk by ensuring your line managers know where – or who – to go to if they don’t have the answers themselves. An organizational chart and fully populated profiles on your intranet are a great starting point. When a member of staff asks a question that others may also be seeking the answer to, it may help to populate this on your intranet for future staff to self-serve.
Most importantly, remind managers that they are not a one-person Wikipedia, with all the answers. Admitting when we don’t know something, that we’re in the wrong, or have made mistakes, makes us human. In fact, showing that side of ourselves makes us more approachable, authentic, and better communicators, not worse.
#7. Establish a process for cascading information up and down
Ensure your line managers are kept in the loop about business developments, changes, major news and more. This will enable them to feed down information in a regular and informal way during one-to-ones or team meetings.
This may be through regular manager meetings, a dedicated communication cascade process that reaches managers first, or perhaps a manager community on your intranet.
Internal communication is, as we know, a two-way street: you should also have processes in place for cascading up information from middle management to those at the top. Whether this is a formal workflow for submitting internal stories, complaints, and feedback or a more relaxed approach, it’s important your managers feel empowered with a voice.
#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 your line managers are widely dispersed and operating in completely different areas of the organization, it’s likely that the challenges they face as managers are shared and relatable.
Creating a dedicated and safe space for line 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 – can prove invaluable.
Here, staff can share experiences or challenges, ask for support and advice, and gain valuable insight. The practice of talking through their difficulties will make them better at identifying, communicating and solving problems, ultimately making them better managers.
Empower line managers to be the best version of themselves
Effective communication is undeniably a skill. It may not come naturally for some, and it takes practice.
An internal communications function can play a powerful and crucial role in supporting line managers to be better at communicating: but while it may be tempting to step in and do the legwork, it’s important we retain a consultative approach.
The minute we begin to micromanage the process, we risk undermining their authority and confidence or making their voices sound inauthentic. Instead, we should be helping to improve line manager communication and enabling managers to be the very best version of themselves.