Why is it important for all managers to communicate well with their team members? It’s because “the manager accounts for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units,” according to the ‘State of the American Manager report‘ 2017, by Gallup Inc., the world’s biggest organizational analytics and advisory firm. Gallup consultants believe “Engagement should be a manager’s primary role responsibility.” [Keep in mind there are many different definitions of ‘engagement.’] When you improve the communication skills of managers across your organization, you broadly improve employee engagement levels as well – a key indicator of operational performance.
Wharton management professor Ethan Mollick was consistent with the Gallup view, saying in a 2011 paper, updated in 2013, that “middle managers may be the most important people in your company.” His study showed middle managers have a particularly large impact on firm performance in creative, innovative, and knowledge-intensive industries.
Gallup defines a manager as “someone who is responsible for leading a team toward common objectives” and “engaged employees as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace,” with the goal of improved business outcomes. And middle managers are “a group who are defined by their intermediate power levels within an organization,” according to Anicich and Hirsh in the Harvard Business Review in 2017.
“Engaged employees contribute to the economic health of their company and the nation in ways that other employees do not.” This is important because, from Gallup’s analysis in the same report:
However, only 21% of employees strongly agreed their performance was managed in a way that motivated them to do outstanding work, according to the findings of the 2017 ‘State of the American Workplace’ report.
Data shows leaders need to define and convey their vision more clearly – and rally employees around it. Gallup data in 2017 revealed an unsettling pattern in the US workplace. Employees had little belief in their company’s leaders. The data showed that only:
It must be noted that middle level managers and employee supervisors have a difficult role: They are simultaneously expected to be assertive in leading their workplace team while showing deference to their own bosses. “Simply put, it is psychologically challenging to disengage from a task that requires one mindset and engage in another task that requires a very different mindset,” was the observation by Profs Anicich and Hirsh in the Harvard Business Review in 2017. The consolation is that being placed in between levels can give middle managers insight and empathy simultaneously with the people who are above and below them in the organizational hierarchy.
Research shows that a strikingly low percentage of managers are themselves engaged. A Gallup study of 2,564 US managers found that just 35% were engaged, while 51% were not engaged and 14% were actively disengaged. The ‘not engaged’ and ‘actively disengaged’ groups together cost the US around $320 to $400 billion annually.
The lack of engagement among frontline managers could be causing havoc on engagement among frontline employees. Essentially, managers’ engagement directly influences their employees’ engagement, creating a ‘cascade effect,’ and the link between the two is powerful, with major consequences. Managers who work for engaged leaders are 39% more likely to be engaged themselves, but 51% of managers have essentially ‘checked out,’ according to the 2017 Gallup State of the American Manager report. This means at least half of managers care little, if at all, about their job and company.
This conclusion is supported by the fact that Gallup’s survey results consistently show a correlation between managers’ average engagement level of 35% and the consistent engagement levels of full-and part-time US adult workers – around 35% in recent years (from 34% in 2018 to 36% in 2021).
Two US studies found CEOs often overlook the importance of leadership communication, and the consequences of this. Firstly, the Porter and Nohria study, below, found CEOs generally didn’t give enough time to middle managers and lower-level employees. And the second study, below, found that lower level employees were critical of the ways many CEOs behaved badly in various communication-related actions.
1. CEO time management
A 12-year study from 2006 to 2018 by business professors Michael Porter and Nitin Nohria of the Harvard Business School gives valuable insights into the nature of CEO activities. The study revealed that CEOs communicated face-to-face for around 61% of their time, by phone and letter for 15% of their time, and by electronic devices for 24% of their time. They spent 72% of their time at work in meetings, and 28% in ‘alone’ time. The authors emphasize that face-to-face interaction is the best way for CEOs to exercise influence, learn what’s really going on, and delegate to move forward the multiple agendas that must be advanced. How a CEO spends face-to-face time is viewed as a signal of what or who is important; “people watch this more carefully than most CEOs recognize.”
Direct human contact with the rank and file also grounds CEOs and helps them understand employees’ reality. CEOs face a real risk of operating in a bubble and never seeing the actual world their workers face. Relationships with employees at multiple levels also build a CEO’s legitimacy and trustworthiness in the eyes of employees, which is essential to motivating them and winning their support.
2. Leaders’ poor behavior towards employees
A 2015 study identified leader communication issues that irked employees:
Organizations need to understand what managers are doing in the workplace to create or destroy engagement. In a further survey of 7,712 U.S. adults, Gallup asked respondents to rate their manager on specific behaviors related to communication, performance management and strengths. These behaviors strongly link to employee engagement, and give organizations better insights into developing their managers and raising the overall level of performance of the business. The survey results showed “managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units.” Managers are responsible for setting job expectations, providing constructive feedback, encouraging growth and development, and building strong teams.
To unlock a team’s abilities, according to McKinsey, a manager at any level must spend a significant amount of time on two activities: helping the team understand the company’s direction and its implications for team members – and coaching for performance.
If organizations want to engage their employees, the best place to start is by developing managers’ abilities to coach their employees. Teaching managers to be a coach begins with helping them develop the communication, managerial and people skills needed to connect with their team, understand their needs, become an active part of their performance and individualize each team member’s development.
The most important finding from a 2015 meta-analysis of 17 rigorous studies of workplace coaching is that workplace coaching works. The researchers found that workplace coaching has a small to moderate effect on skill development, a bigger positive effect on mood and motivation – and the biggest and best effect on performance improvement.
Communication has always been at the center of organizational performance. For instance, several studies covering the period 1970 to the 1990s found that around 50-80% of the workday of professional, technical, administrative and clerical staff was spent in communicating, of which two‐thirds was in talking. The studies were by Klemmer and Snyder, 1972; and Mintzberg 1973, Rice and Shook,1990; Ives and Olson, 1981; Kotter, 1982; and Poppel, 1982, as reported in Carlson and David 1998.
Carlson and David also observed that:
…some authors have gone so far as to consider organizations as solely communication phenomena, that is, entities developed and maintained only through continuous communication activity among their participants (Farace, et al., 1977; Weick 1979).
In more recent times, we find that electronic channels have made organizational communication more efficient but this has led to more workload for managers and other employees. Assuming that email can be considered electronic communication, it is the most frequent activity of US managers and above by a long way, as shown in the 2018 survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit, below. Email is also notorious for creating overload within organizations. But that’s another matter.
There is no doubt that frontline managers and supervisors are the key communication source for frontline employees. For instance, from his 40 years of experience, veteran US communication strategist Jim Lukaszewski believes ‘first-line supervisors,’ as he calls middle managers and supervisors, are the information sources for these employees. He estimated in his February 2020 newsletter that 30% of employee information comes to these employees through their boss, ahead of any other sources, as follows:
Employee information sources
The indications are that many middle managers are like the many motorists who don’t like admitting they are poor drivers – most managers will never admit they are poor communicators. That’s understandable. Acceptable communication skills for managers are taken for granted, and it would be a bit humiliating for a manager with significant experience to be told to get some training to improve their basic communication skills.
The Gatehouse State of the Sector 2020 report found around 41% of internal communication (IC) respondents said poor line manager communication skills were one of the top 3 barriers to IC success in their organization. There wasn’t much difference between the top three, which means the lack of these skills continues to be a major organizational problem. Yet only about a third of respondents (37%) reported that their IC team was involved (22%) or very involved (15%) in communication coaching and/or training of managers. And only 29% of respondents said they would be focusing their attention and resources on enhancing line manager communication in the next 12 months. This raises the question of whether the IC team members have the experience and capability to conduct this training, or whether they think it is a specialized task for others to do eg HR.
Two thirds of managers uncomfortable communicating with their direct reports
At least some managers admit their flaws: two thirds of managers in a 2015 survey admitted to being poor communicators. A total of 2,058 US adults were surveyed, including 1,120 employed people, of whom 616 were managers. The survey finding was “a stunning majority” of 69% of the managers said they were uncomfortable communicating in general with employees. Over a third (37%) reported they were uncomfortable having to give direct feedback or criticism about their employee’s performance, who might respond badly. [Admittedly, the sample size wasn’t big, but the findings were clear cut.] The graph below reveals the disappointing findings.
Effective internal communication is a highly important foundation for employee engagement that impacts on business performance, as shown in the 2013 global survey below. The graph shows that communication was the key factor in at least the top 5 of 8 most impactful drivers of employee engagement, as reported by the 568 respondents (largely senior level executives, who were all from organizations with 500 or more employees.)
Above table sourced from the 2013 HBR Analytic Services survey
Good communication is the basis of every healthy relationship, including the one between an employee and their manager. Consistent communication – in person, over the phone, or electronically – is connected to higher engagement, in Gallup findings. For example, employees whose managers hold regular meetings with them are almost three times as likely to be engaged as employees whose managers do not hold regular meetings with them.
Studies show communication is the most frequent and important management activity. Managers typically spend 60-80% of their time communicating with their peers and direct reports. In large part, communication is their work. They are engaged mainly in face-to-face in meetings, or in using telephone or email, more than using other tools of communication, as shown in the chart below, because they think it is the most effective.
Engagement is highest among employees who have some form of (face-to-face, phone, or digital) daily communication with their managers, a finding of a Gallup survey. These ongoing interactions explain why engaged workers are also more likely to report their manager knows what projects or tasks they are working on.
But basic daily interactions between managers and employees are not enough to maximize engagement. Employees value communication from their manager about their roles and responsibilities, and also about what happens in their lives outside of work. The Gallup study reveals that employees who feel as though their manager cares about them are more likely to be engaged.
No organization is too large to base communication directly (face-to-face) between frontline managers/supervisors and their direct reports. TJ Larkin makes the point that:
Informal communication is the glue holding companies together. If your company was too large for effective face-to-face communication, it would have disappeared years ago. Face-to-face is the most used, most effective, most trusted, and quickest channel for moving messages in large companies.
What’s more – time has shown that having more ways to communicate doesn’t necessarily mean better communication. Also, to complicate the picture further, different generations of employees tend to use different modes of communication more often than other generations.
The best managers actively develop positive relationships with their direct reports
The best managers make a determined effort to get to know their employees and help them feel comfortable talking about any subject, whether it is work related or not. A productive workplace is one in which people feel they have psychological safety – their perspective on how threatening or rewarding it is to take interpersonal risks at work. In a psychologically safe workplace, employees feel secure enough to experiment, to challenge, to share information, and to support one another. In this type of workplace, team members are prepared to give the manager and their organization the benefit of the doubt. But none of this can happen if employees do not feel cared about.
Effective communication is often noted as a key competency for managerial positions, but the skill is rarely defined except in best practice organizations, and even then the communication competencies of a strong leader tend to be less than specific. A sizeable number of managers duck the responsibility of communication with their direct reports entirely; they believe the sole responsibility for communicating lies with the employee communication team.
We’ve seen above how important communication between frontline managers and supervisors with their team members is to strengthen the engagement levels of their team. Yet, as noted above, poor line manager communication was named in the 2020 Gatehouse State of the Sector international survey (45 countries represented) as the third biggest barrier to internal communication success, closely behind (1) coping with the high volume of communication, and (2) hard-to-reach employees. This data underlines the fact that good manager communication is essential to a high-performing organization. So here’s a strategy to improve the communication skills of middle/line managers with their employees:
Probably you should start by having a quick discussion in principle with your CEO, outlining the broad reasons for making such a move. Make sure you have clear data that will back your case on this. Without your CEO, or equivalent, on board, it is pointless going any further to develop a plan. But, with the CEO firmly supporting your case, you can tactfully mention their support during discussions with others along the way, even if your plans are just in principle.
If you report to a divisional general manager or other senior executive, put your argument to them first because they are your boss. They will give you their view, along with valuable feedback on the likelihood of support from other members of the executive committee. Give them due credit for their support when discussing with others.
Hold preliminary meeting/s about the concept with your head of HR to ‘test the waters.’ Their response will give you an indication of likely support and possible objections. Working with HR is absolutely key to ensuring you are aligned with the HR function and won’t tread unnecessarily into what they may feel is their territory. Emphasize that good communication is vital to successful line manager roles.
Also, try holding the equivalent of a focus group session with 6 or so business unit managers or department heads to seek their feedback on the idea in principle. Be clear that it is early days and the session is merely to assess views in principle about the concept and any suggestions they may have.
I held the position of corporate affairs manager in three engineering/commercial construction companies earlier in my career – of which two were billion dollar companies. I found experienced managers in those sort of environments don’t want to be told how to improve their communication. I think they believe they would not have advanced up the chain of command if they didn’t have satisfactory communication skills already. They may not have wanted to admit that they had advanced in their careers despite their poor communication skills. Your managers may be similar. In this case, you definitely need to get the backing of top management for your strategy proposal, and also to back your case with specific data showing a strong need for better communication skills by certain managers in your organization. You could conduct audits similar to the ones mentioned below.
Ideally, you will be able to set key performance indicators (KPIs) for the communication activities of middle managers and supervisors. ‘KPI’ is a term referring to repeated processes in which the performance for one period of time can be compared with the performance in later periods of time. KPI is a measure of output, and is less satisfactory than referring to outcomes or results. In communication, there are few identical activities, and the tasks that are identical are usually low-level, and are hardly worth using as a measure, except to check that regular activities are still being conducted according to schedule, such as producing and circulating the monthly employee newsletter by a certain day each month. But at least KPIs show what activities are expected to be done. The list below related in real-life to a divisional general manager’s KPIs for communication performance after I put a case to the CEO to make managers at all levels accountable for their communication. You could do similar with middle managers and frontline supervisors:
All the KPIs mentioned above can be analyzed to decide the best measure to apply for the outcome/s of each of those KPI activities.
Staff ratings of their supervisor or manager’s communication skills
An effective way to rate the communication skills of supervisors or managers who are responsible for frontline employees is to ask their team members to respond to a simple questionnaire containing questions such as these about their immediate supervisor or manager:
Staff ratings of supervisors or managers’ communication skills can quickly be calculated and summarized from the responses to the questionnaire. For candid responses, especially for workplaces with a small number of staff, it is essential to ensure confidentiality for individuals. Notice the statements are about behavior rather than merely about attitudes. It is much easier to change observable behavior than underlying attitudes.
Ideally, this type of survey would be conducted across your organization. Then the results could be put into a table comparing all the managers’ results. The important thing then is to circulate the table to all managers and if possible discuss in a meeting in which they are all present. This will unleash powerful competitive peer pressure among the managers to do better next time, which will motivate managers to improve their performance. This approach has been proven in action, as described by change communication expert TJ Larkin in his book, Communicating Change.
The above measures relate to outputs rather than results. Results are really what matters, and simple measurement techniques can provide the mechanism to improve operational results. You can take the initiative and achieve impressive results by using measurement techniques to identify operational communication blockages and reach solutions that clearly improve profitability of the area.
When the CEO or your boss indicate their definite support of the concept, you can proceed to fill in the details, firstly with a short summary to use as the basis for putting the case in meetings with others, and then following up with a detailed case document. The early feedback you gain will be valuable for making your formal case later.
Among the details, you will need to clearly indicate how the decisions will be reached on what to communicate as ‘all hands’ content. Major content should be handled differently.
Write a short summary of the plan, similar in length to an executive summary, backed up in a second document by your full-length, detailed case. Top executives are pressed for time, and they don’t want to wade through a long document, especially when cost estimates are in the last page! But they can refer to detail in the long document along the way, if they wish to delve into details. Here’s what you can do:
Prepare your case, highlighting the need for the strategy. Briefly explain that middle manager job performance accounts for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores within business units and across the organization, and that manager communication is a highly important factor in employee engagement and therefore workplace productivity. Also focus on any of your organization’s data that supports your case for action. Success with all of this depends to a large extent on the credibility and trust in the IC role within your business.
Research shows dramatically larger effects when employees hear the information from their own managers. Manager communication is between four and nine times more powerful than corporate [cascaded] communication.
…Small communication is informal and face-to-face between managers and their employees. Overwhelmingly this is how employees want their communication. And it’s how you should want the communication too—as it delivers more employee support. The payoff from this informal face-to-face communication is less employee resistance [to change] and better implementation.
Engagement is an every day, every moment undertaking for managers and their teams, as advised by Gallup. So, enable managers to ‘rumor bust’ by ensuring they are informed about critical information early and often. Communicate transparently about changes – large and small. If you don’t inform your frontline managers and supervisors first, you will be undermining their role. If the news has already gone through the rumor mill, inaccuracies and misinformation are sure to dominate. When managers are provided with critical information early and often, they build a culture of trust. Then, as questions come up, team members go to their immediate boss for clarity rather than alerting the rumor network. Absence of transparency yields mistrust, which can quickly spiral to disengagement. Transparency, on the other hand, can make your employee engagement strategy much more effective.
It is crucial for managers and supervisors to understand that good communication skills are vital. Cultivating communication skills creates a positive experience for employees, as well as making managers more comfortable in their role and enhancing their personal and professional development.
Coordinate with HR to improve managers’ coaching ability of their team members
An early step is to measure the current communication skills of frontline managers and supervisors. Then start a project on improving skills to those who need upgrading. Many resources are available for this, including blogs, courses, online tutorials, conferences, books, white papers, etc. Discuss this with HR and firmly encourage participants to explore the options. Since communication is a soft skill, you may need to be firm with some managers about the important gap between their skill and what their employees expect. Use data about feedback from their direct reports to support your case.
You can arrange training for frontline managers and supervisors on interpersonal communication skills, which should include topics such as:
Repeat key messages
If you are asking frontline managers and supervisors to share messages effectively, you should support them along the way, working on your own coaching skills and continually and gently using those skills to develop others. After all, as professional communicators, you have a lot of knowledge and experience to offer. With support and understanding, along with the gathering and sharing of feedback, a line manager’s confidence and comfort will strengthen greatly.
Many people think communication is a one-time event. They say things like, “I sent out an email” or “I already mentioned that.” They perceive their communication from their own sender’s point of view rather than the receiver’s. Sending information out is just that – getting information out. Nothing more. In fact, doing a little, and thinking they are done is one of the most common traps leaders fall into. The result is a lack of information, skepticism, mistrust, confusion, or worse yet, inaction among those they are trying to reach. Jim Lukaszewski’s 2014 view on this is still the same in 2020:
Each employee group has a limited ability to hear what management is saying. In good times, each functional group has a hearing efficiency of only 1:3. They get every third word. Even those who ‘work to live’ fail to hear every message correctly the first time. This is why management’s relentless quest for efficiency and effectiveness is always off the mark and why demands to get it right on the first day are nearly impossible to achieve. Even lifesaving messages have to be repeated.
When trouble is in the air, when change is on the horizon or coming into an organization, hearing efficiency is reduced to about every fifth or seventh word. Change creates fear, uncertainty, and doubt. When these are present, the listening efficiency can drop to 1:12 or worse. People who feel like victims don’t hear the facts. They can be moved only by appeals to their emotional state.
Building trust and credibility is about communicating an important message consistently in several ways to individuals or to the whole team. When employees hear the thrust of a message repeated in different ways from their immediate boss, they are more likely to take notice, believe it, and most importantly, act on it.
When the message is important for all employees, the most effective transmission is for everyone to hear a consistent message from several sources, for example, from:
In drafting messages, think about the actions you are trying to drive. What do you want employees to do as a result of this communication? Clearly communicate the actions you want them to take. Be specific and give examples. Without a call-to-action, your message is just information.
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