This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
If you want a high performing organization, you need to engage and inspire your middle managers. They are the key to employee engagement, according to research conducted for the UK Chartered Management Institute. But middle managers need good lines of communication from top management in order to engage their own staff. Unfortunately, good contact from the top happens far too rarely, according to a 2018 Gatehouse survey of employee engagement and internal communication.
Poor middle manager communication is the biggest barrier to successful internal communication, according to the Gatehouse survey, which drew responses from 650 communicators internationally, of whom 57% were based in the UK and 20% in the US. Middle managers play a central role in managing and guiding employees, and yet are often stymied by upper management.
The CMI survey found many middle managers seemed to be disengaged and disillusioned with the way they are treated. In turn, this makes it difficult for them to communicate effectively with their own direct reports.
In my own experience, I saw some of this poor communication from senior management for myself. For instance, as corporate affairs manager (and chief communicator), I attended the power utility executive meetings along with my boss Nenad, a young and ambitious general manager. Nenad held a briefing meeting of the 6 middle managers in our division after each executive meeting. To my amazement, he would selectively slant his verbal report on discussions at the executive meetings in a way that made him seem to play a much more important role than he actually did. It was surreal – almost like he was reporting about a different meeting altogether. The other managers in our division would have taken him at his word, and undoubtedly were caught out at times by his misrepresentation of the executive meetings when they had to pass on information to their staff.
As a communicator yourself, especially if you a middle manager, the CMI research would be relevant: middle managers want to see their leaders as stronger, better communicators. They show a powerful desire for honesty – the single most important driver of trust – and to understand the motivations and reasons for the actions of their leaders. They want honest relations with senior management – and that requires effective, clear communication from the top.
The CMI survey found:
Management style and poor communication are key factors affecting trust. Middle managers doubt the integrity of senior leaders.
Trust is personal. In order to build trust, nothing beats personal, face-to-face contact. Time and again, the survey respondents stressed the importance and value that they placed on a business leader who engages with everyone in the business and keeps employees informed in an open and honest way.
I can vouch for this myself. At one stage, I was on contract assignment as public affairs manager for the State operations of an international billion dollar engineering company whose head office was on the other side of the country, 4 hours flight away. One day, I found the CEO had arrived from head office for project operations meetings with top local engineering management. During one of his breaks I saw him walking the corridor, introducing himself and chatting with local staff in their offices, and also to me as I walked past. No fuss, no drama. I was most impressed and strongly remember the experience to this day.
Try to implement these key actions in your quest to achieve greater support for communication by top management. You won’t make worthwhile progress in improving internal communication overall until top managers start to give their tangible support, and so are perceived by all staff to be championing the way by good example. When they start to show their support, they will influence middle managers as well.
For any communication role to succeed, we need to ensure we have wide organizational knowledge. Too often, we see ourselves as specialist communicators without making the effort (usually because of time pressures) to understand other departmental roles. We need to know enough about the administrative and operational roles so we can talk their language, and are comfortable using their professional jargon. Bridging the gap is vital.
Internal communication is often left to junior communicators. Even if you are junior, you can make your presence felt by actively learning the language of other departments and also making the effort to visit operational areas to learn about the frontline.
We need to understand the mindset of the board and CEO so we can respond to their priorities and ensure we are taking the big picture into account by thinking strategically. Try to gain access to papers and reports presented to the board and executives. Perhaps your boss will allow you to read some of the non-confidential ones. These will give you an inside knowledge of thinking at the highest levels.
Numbers are what management listens to. Communicating your results to internal stakeholders is the best way to make them aware that internal communication is strategic. When you talk about the benefits of a certain project in terms of business results rather than merely outputs, top management listen to you more carefully.
Instead of making unsupported claims about the importance of internal communication, use facts to support your case. You can highlight industry research showing that organizations that are good at communication clearly perform better. Develop a regular updated ‘casebook’ of the relevant data, case studies, and key points you wish to make, and refer to these in meetings, reports, communication strategies, and in interactions with others during day-to-day communication tasks.
Request opportunities to present to peers and other departments about communication as part of an internal stakeholder relations strategy. Whenever you can, relate your communication activities to your organizational and divisional goals. You will need repeat this often to make an impact. This shows you have a strategic purpose in mind as the foundation for the daily tasks.
All organizations are continually going through change, which is crucial to their future. Therefore, refer to data about change programs because upper management will take notice. An example is the way Towers Watson data was the basis for their finding that companies with high effectiveness in change management and communication are 3½ times more likely to significantly outperform their industry peers than firms that are not effective in these areas. Middle managers are vital in this:
When effectively trained and informed, managers represent an untapped resource that can create the culture and drive the behaviors needed to develop competitive advantage.”
This finding is supported by the results of a 2018 Conference Board member survey, “Reinventing the Organization for the Digital Age.” This survey asked CEOs and C-suite executives to identify the top 5 traits, competencies, and characteristics they believe are most critical to becoming a truly agile organization. Overall, communication ranked second highest, relating to “an open and transparent speak-up culture” and “communicate effectively from all levels; communicate consistently and transparently,” as below:
Using this type of data, especially about something as important as change communication, will enable you to present a strong case to the decision-makers that better communication will improve the bottom-line. It is also likely to make a strong case for more funding to be provided for your internal communication initiatives.
Get top management support for developing a manager communication strategy for a change management project, and ensure that the initiative is actively championed by your CEO and senior management. This will help pave the way for senior management to generally accept the need for greater communication from the top.
Internal communication surveys and focus groups of employees can be conducted, which include questions about employee satisfaction with communication from middle and upper management, and staff opportunities to communicate upwards. This will give direct, hard evidence that senior managers need to communicate better, especially when the future of the organization is at stake. I have found focus groups especially valuable – and they have minimal cost. Individual participants realize their identity is secure and are usually prepared to speak their mind quite openly, which can be quoted in your reports to senior management.
Perhaps you are able to attend executive meetings, but if you are not sufficiently senior to attend these meetings, form strong relationships with individual managers who are members of the senior management team.
You may report directly to a senior manager who can take up your issues, or you can meet with other senior managers on an agreed basis so you can update them on communication issues. There are invariably senior managers who can help communicators to get the support or active involvement of the CEO.
Influence your HR manager to be a strong ally by working closely together on mutual internal issues. Use the opportunity to educate them on the value of good communication, especially in change programs (using data from industry case studies, etc). Point out how good communication is central to a good corporate culture and engagement – and is an important means of the organization achieving its mission and goals.
As the Gatehouse research shows middle managers are very dependent on receiving information from top management, seek to build allies among other middle managers so they can influence their bosses to press the CEO and senior executives to be more forthcoming with better information.
The CMI research shows that the five most desired behaviors middle managers seek from top management are:
You can arrange updates from top management to middle managers by setting up an exclusive app like Slack, a management intranet channel, or similar. This could be used to quickly communicate corporate news and management information. Ensure content is regularly updated to maintain the interest of the target audience.
The concept of Management By Walking Around (MBWA) has been around for decades, and is still one of the most effective ways for senior management to keep in touch with what’s happening at grass roots level. Find recent data on the continuing value of MBWA and keep pushing it. It is a spontaneous act that may bring spontaneous responses from employees. It gives you the opportunity to see them in action and learn more directly what they do each day. On a more serious note, it is a way of checking on employee productivity with a surprise visit.
An essential part of the process involves asking plenty of questions of everyone from other departmental managers to administrative assistants and security guards. Everyone has knowledge to share about some aspect of the business.
MBWA is a very effective way to listen to frontline employees and model this behavior to team leaders. It also improves employee morale. If a higher-level middle manager or senior manager does it, they may chat to staff who normally don’t see managers that high up. The manager will get to know them and their jobs better. The employees will feel that the higher ups care about their work –
Unfortunately, work pressures mean many executives fade away on this option, so remind them regularly to keep doing it. Staff surveys will reflect the high regard employees have for it.
According to Scott Bateman in a 2018 article, MBWA gives a manager the chance to:
Using internal social media activities is a developing area. There is growing interest and acceptance for CEOs to use social media to engage with internal and external stakeholders. Certainly take this up as long as your CEO voice is perceived as authentic and communicates about relevant content. Ensure that some of the content strategically supports the role of middle managers.
Modelling great communication behavior is a cornerstone for great communication culture in an organization. And often this is where internal communicators come in: we need to work with our leaders and keep suggesting ways such as above in which they can engage in good internal communication.
This article explains the ways you can get middle managers to communicate better with their direct reports.
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