Your top management must communicate well with employees if you want a high-performing organization. But first, these executives need to engage and inspire your mid-level managers. According to research conducted for the UK Chartered Management Institute, they are the key to employee engagement. But middle managers need good communication lines from top management to engage their 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 most significant barrier to successful internal communication, according to the 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 hindered by upper management.
Disengaged and disconnected
The CMI survey found that many middle managers seemed disengaged and disillusioned with how they are treated. This makes it difficult for them to communicate effectively with their 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 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 to make 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.
What middle managers need from top management
As a communicator yourself, especially if you are 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 most important driver of trust – and to understand their leaders’ motivations and reasons for their actions. They want honest relations with senior management, which requires effective, clear communication from the top. The CMI survey found:
- Four out of five middle managers (80%) believe they are vital in building a trusting workplace culture.
- Trust is believed to be critical to organizational performance by 85% of middle managers and 88% of senior leaders.
- Only 36% of Britain’s middle managers say they trust their business leader to a great extent.
- Just 53% of middle managers believe they can trust what their organization tells them.
Build a better top management style and communication
Management style and poor communication are key factors affecting trust. Middle managers doubt the integrity of senior leaders:
- Only 37% of middle managers agree their leadership team is transparent in its decisions and actions
- 41% of middle managers describe the management style in their organization as bureaucratic and 35% describe it as authoritarian.
Trust is personal. To build trust, nothing beats personal, face-to-face contact. The survey respondents repeatedly stressed the importance and value they placed on a business leader who engages with everyone in the business and keeps employees informed openly and honestly.
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 financial 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 with me as I walked past. No fuss, no drama. I was most impressed and strongly remember the experience to this day.
You can read more about how you can get stronger support from senior executives in this article.
7 tips for getting top management to communicate effectively with employees
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 give their tangible support and are perceived by all staff to be championing the way by a good example. When they start to show their support, they will influence middle managers as well.
1. Start by looking at your own strategic awareness
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 an effort (usually because of time pressures) to understand other departmental roles. We need to know enough about the administrative and operational roles to speak their language and be comfortable using their professional jargon. Bridging the gap is vital.
Internal communication is often left to junior communicators. Even if you are a junior, you can make your presence felt by actively learning the language of other departments and also making an 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 consider the big picture by thinking strategically. Try to access 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.
2. Use data to support your case
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 listens 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 regularly 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. Relate your communication activities to your organizational and divisional goals whenever you can. You will need to repeat this often to make an impact. This shows you have a strategic purpose in mind as the foundation for daily tasks.
Use change communication to gain active top management support
All organizations continually undergo 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 a competitive advantage.”
Good internal communication helps build an agile organization
This finding is supported by 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 data type, 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 for your internal communication initiatives.
Get top management support for developing a manager communication strategy for a change management project, and ensure that your CEO and senior management actively champion the initiative. This will help pave the way for senior management to accept the need for greater communication from the top.
Internal communication surveys are valuable
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 minds quite openly, which can be quoted in your reports to senior management.
3. Develop internal allies
Perhaps you can attend executive meetings, but if you are not sufficiently senior to attend these meetings, form strong relationships with individual managers who are senior management team members.
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 to update them on communication issues. There are invariably senior managers who can help communicators get the CEO’s support or active involvement.
Cooperate actively with your HR manager
Influence your HR manager to be a strong ally by working closely 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 good corporate culture and engagement – and is an important means of achieving its mission and goals.
As the Gatehouse research shows, middle managers depend on receiving information from top management. They seek to build allies among other middle managers to 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:
- Reveal their thinking about important issues (63%)
- Admit their mistakes (54%)
- Encourage people to raise issues (51%)
- Inspire them regarding the business ambition and strategy (48%)
- Act consistently with the company’s values (46%)
4. Arrange for top management to conduct briefings for middle managers
To improve your top management’s relationship with middle managers, organize for them to brief middle managers on relevant issues. 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 communicate corporate news and management information quickly. Ensure content is regularly updated to maintain the interest of the target audience.
5. Remember the power of MBWA – and listen
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 the grassroots 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 allows you to see them in action and learn more directly what they do daily. More seriously, it is a way of checking 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 the 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 with 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 from this option, so remind them regularly to keep doing it. Staff surveys will reflect the high regard employees have for it.
MBWA aids managers relationships with their team
According to Scott Bateman in a 2018 article, MBWA gives a manager a chance to:
- Talk to other managers along with way about important issues.
- Encourage and praise employees to their faces for recent good work rather than by an impersonal email.
- Get a more accurate read of what people really think from their facial expressions and other body language.
- Observe whether employees are working or goofing off. Even if they are working, a manager could get important productivity clues about whether they are overwhelmed or underworked.
- Build stronger relationships, which is much easier in person than by phone or email.
- Find out in person how some tasks are actually done, which is useful for planning and managing more effectively.
6. Use internal social media
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. Indeed, take this up as long as your CEO’s voice is perceived as authentic and communicates relevant content. Ensure that some of the content strategically supports the role of middle managers.
7. Emphasize role modelling
Modelling excellent 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.
How to get middle managers to communicate better
This article explains how you can get middle managers to communicate better with their direct reports. This type of improved communication can help your career prospects as well. Read here how to strengthen your career advancement potential as a middle manager.
Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.