This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
As communicators we all know how important top leaders are for delivering key strategic messages to employees. However, middle managers are just as important for achieving results through strategic communication with their direct reports.
For instance, in my most recent corporate job (which wasn’t specifically PR), the head honcho made various pronouncements, but local managers were never effectively briefed or equipped to carry those messages through to their staff. Thus those messages never properly extended from them to the frontline – and were never implemented well.
If your organization contains middle managers, you can support them as key influencers by giving them guidance on good communication.
In my experience, the job ads and job description for any type of manager says something vague like: “Must be a good communicator,” but little further guidance about what they should be doing to communicate well. What’s more, nearly every manager thinks they are a good communicator – like nearly everyone thinks they are a good driver – and so they feel little motivation to improve this soft skill.
As a profession, we need to refer to the ample evidence in employee and industry surveys that shows communication is central to being a good manager and achieving good results with their teams. For instance, a US Project Management Institute survey in 2013 found “the most crucial success factor in project management is effective communication to all stakeholders,” and the survey respondents quantified the cost of ineffective communication at 56% of the risk component of major projects.
Having established this legitimacy of the communication component of their role, we need to ensure managers know what is expected of them. Their job description or a competency model should state that their performance will be judged on communication among the other factors.
Their job documents should detail the communication actions they are required to conduct. Briefing material intended for them to cascade to staff should be very specific about what they should say and do. For example, they might be required to hold a weekly staff meeting so everyone is up to date with the activities in their work area and has the opportunity to contribute to team discussions.
Likewise, they could be required to talk about a company value and/or strategy or safety every week and how each value, strategy or safety element is specifically embodied in the workplace. These details are crucial for the manager to comply. Middle managers should be frequently reminded of these responsibilities.
This type of important information needs to be communicated in person. Technology in is only a support for it.
Thoroughly brief middle managers on major corporate issues. It is not just a case of handing over briefing material. Internal communication expert Liam FitzPatrick of Competent Communicators advocates giving the opportunity for managers to test for themselves whether they agree with the message being suggested
Ways of achieving this include pre-announcement briefings, regular monthly update calls or manager conferences.
Most managers are not skilled communicators. They are not likely to know how to construct and deliver key messages, facilitate team discussions or even invite questions.
Training should be about content and delivery. You can lead them through preparation and rehearsal of sessions. Also check that they support the intent of the messages. Some managers will support strategic programs more than others, and their direct reports will detect these attitudes. Even if a manager is saying the right words, employees can see by their body language such as their facial expression and intonation what they really think. Be wary of this.
The easy way out is to just give them copies of briefing material that has been used for other purposes such as media conferences. However, this type of material tends to be full of management jargon and will turn off frontline employees. You need to translate the content into everyday English so managers can easily impart to their team.
And ask them in detail what they need so they succeed in gaining understanding and support down to their most junior staff and also casual employees.
Middle managers should be evaluated on what their direct reports think of their communication effectiveness. If your organizational surveys don’t reveal this level of detail, then give employees in each area a simple questionnaire with a few key questions that can be answered on a Likert scale, ie on a scale of 0-5 points. The results will be very revealing, but ensure enough people complete the questionnaire in each area so their individual identities are not revealed.
When you deliver important briefing information to middle managers, ask them to tell you in their own words what the key messages are. If they don’t properly understand the message you wish to cascade, then their staff are definitely not going to understand and respond as you would wish, so check on this and reinforce where appropriate.
Article updated in February 2020.
By Silvia Arto, Vice President of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, Chair of the European Regional
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