Are line managers the problem when it comes to communicating, or could they actually be the solution?
That was the question addressed at the latest Sequel Presents seminar where an intrigued audience gathered to address the enigma of middle management.
In his opening address, Nick Andrews, Sequel’s Business Development Director, revealed he recently unearthed a speech he gave as IoIC chairman back in 2006, which cited line managers as obstacles to communication.
It appears not much has changed in 13 years, but communicators are finally waking up the the realisation that the problem might not be them – it could be us!
“If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll continue to get the same results,” said Leah Bowden, Director of Communications, Humanize Communications and former Head of Internal Communications, Close Brothers. “If we prepare a briefing pack, put out a communication and ask line managers to cascade it, we think we’ve supported them, but have we really?
“In a survey of 87,000 line managers, five out of the top six fatal flaws were interpersonal skills. We test people on their strategic and technical abilities, but not their ability to communicate.”
The good news, she says, is that this flaw doesn’t have to be fatal.
Taking inspiration from the Japanese art of kintsugi where gold ‘glue’ is used to mend broken pottery to make it more beautiful than the original, Leah says communicators need to spin the golden threat of confidence by mixing up our approach to manager communications through three main ‘hacks’: Practiced, Playful and Personal.
“We’re expecting managers to rise to a situation they haven’t been in before, and that’s not fair,” she said.
“We need to help them through role play and practice, so they learn how to respond to the different reactions they may face and we need to teach them basic coaching skills. There’s nothing ‘coachy’ about a briefing pack.
“We need to take the pressure off ‘being me’ and get them to think about what someone else would do. For instance, ‘How would Beyoncé deal with this?’ and have some fun with it.
“And we need them to help identify what they love, so they can weave their strengths and their stories into their communication mix. The more comfortable managers feel, the more effective they will be.”
Kate Goodman, Transformation Comms Lead at Dignity Plc, the UK’s second biggest funeral director, believes communication skills should be a core competency of any line manager. She is working with HR to write it into their job description.
For existing managers, she’s made it her business to tour the company and get to know how it, and its managers, work before introducing a much-needed communications strategy to support a major transformation programme.
“The business was crying out for change,” she said, “but there were lots of silos, employees were hard to reach, there was limited technology and a lack of executive visibility.”
Kate knew that for the transformation programme to work, she needed managers on board, so she set up an impressive support network to engage, inform and, importantly educate them.
“We’ve introduced our first ever management conference, annual roadshows for senior and middle managers and a fortnightly executive blog,” she said. “It was vital that they were able to talk to each other as well as understand the transformation process and their role in communicating it.”
A half-hour monthly conference call for managers allows for Q&As, a new team brief cascade was put in place, and webinars are a great platform for training sessions.
To help managers who lack strong communication skills, Kate is working with HR to introduce new e-learning tools for the basics and beyond, such as how to hold a team meeting and how to have difficult conversations, to build upon the change readiness training provided by HR.
Engaged managers will be engaging managers, and that’s important both for employee experience and profitability. Numerous studies show that organisations with high engagement levels outperform low engagement counterpart.
“In the workplace we tend to create conditions where people don’t feel valued and therefore don’t care enough,” says Bob Hughes, Chairman and CEO, The Forton Group and Board member of Engage for Success. “It’s no coincidence that when hospital engagement levels go down, mortality rates increase.
“With increasing pressure on workplaces in a volatile and uncertain world and increasing pressure from within workplaces where employees want empowerment and meaning in their work, coaching line managers is crucial if they are to help the organisation communicate its goals effectively.
“The key to unlocking the frozen middle is to help them unleash their own and their teams’ potential and inspire them to deliver.”