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How you can improve middle manager communication

17 Jun, 2020 Internal communication, Leadership and managerial communication, PR management

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. This is even more important now during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. But middle managers, those whose team is on the frontline, 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.

What middle managers need from top management

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:

  • Four out of five middle managers (80%) believe they are very important 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.
  • 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.

Disengaged and disconnected

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, 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.

Here’s how to improve middle manager communication

1. Develop a manager communication strategy

Define the role of managers in the communication process and ensure the initiative is actively championed by senior management. Include an array of tools and practices for listening, receiving, communicating and responding to messages.

2. Provide communication toolkits to managers

Identify your key business priorities and prepare updated toolkits of key messages, FAQs, etc that managers can use to communicate relevant information. Keep an archive of material in one location that managers can access when they want.

3. Help them identify with their role

Determine the communication skills of managers in your organization and provide training as needed. Not all managers understand or believe that ongoing communication and sharing information with their staff is an important or essential part of their job. Some even think it is a bit demeaning to be trained in such basic activities. Therefore, it is important to find out the attitudes of individual managers before generalizing such training activities.

4. Hold specific events for middle managers

Leaders should take more time to talk with their middle managers, face to face, in formal and informal settings. Well-planned middle manager events require a commitment of executive time but can be extremely effective. A mix of general sessions and breakouts need to be held so better interaction and two-way discussions will take place. IC staff should report on some of the main discussion points in these activities so other employees understand the range of issues discussed, which gives them a lead on what questions to raise with their respective manager.

5. Use MBWA as a powerful tool

Informal, spontaneous communication with middle managers is vital. Management by walking around – MBWA – is tremendously valuable and worth pushing hard for the benefit of the middle manager, even if such face-to-face interactions are occasional. IC pros should make a priority of getting their leader and executive team out among the middle managers and attending informal staff get-togethers over lunch in the break room etc. Word gets around fast and far that the chief is approachable. This happened to me some years ago when the group managing director arrived in town from head office, which was 4-5 hours’ flight away. During a break in a project finance meeting he made the effort to walk around the office to say hello to staff, including me. I still remember the occasion strongly and positively.

6. Develop HR as a strong ally

Don’t fight a lonely battle – influence your HR manager to be a strong ally by working closely together on mutual internal issues, such as the communication skills of middle managers. Use the opportunity to educate them on the value of good communication. Point out how good communication is central to a good corporate culture and high levels of employee engagement – and is an important means of the organization achieving its mission and goals. Refer to the results of other company surveys as proof, as well as more general findings firms like Gallup, Inc.

7. Emphasize research findings

Rather than making unsupported claims about the importance of internal communication, use facts to support your case. You can highlight research showing that companies that are good at communication clearly perform better. This includes some of the research mentioned in this article, especially in relation to middle managers’ communication skills and subsequent impact on the engagement levels of their direct reports. Refer to such findings in meetings, reports and communication strategies. Refer to this strategic information while you are interacting with others about more day-to-day communication tasks. This shows you have a strategic purpose in mind as the foundation for the daily tasks. And wherever you can, relate your communication activities to your organizational and divisional goals. You will need repetition to make an impact.

8. Identify communication competencies needed in your organization

International experience has shown that a good set of managerial communication competencies is needed as a reference point in most workplaces, but surveys found only about one third of respondents’ organizations actually define communication competencies for their managers. Win the support of your HR manager to insert these competencies into managerial job descriptions to replace the usual bland, generalized “good communication skills.” Core interpersonal competencies for managers can be measured by surveying subordinates about whether their manager:

  1. Satisfactorily provides direction to employees
  2. Adequately demonstrates active listening skills
  3. Effectively motivates employees
  4. Seeks feedback from employees
  5. Gives constructive feedback to subordinates
  6. Acts on feedback from employees
  7. Effectively manages conflict with and between their staff

9. Set up communication performance agreements

Since communication is largely intangible and often not reinforced as a priority by senior management, middle managers who are poor communicators are largely unaccountable. How can they be made more accountable? What can be done to improve their application of communication skills?

One answer is that required communication competencies can be built into the performance conditions that most managers and supervisors have these days to cover their day-to-day work responsibilities. These practices can be measured in various ways.

The performance management agreements of these people should include acceptable targets and measures of communication activities. You can advise the HR department on suitable activity targets and measurement processes to set for managers.

For instance, the performance agreement for one business unit general manager included the following activities:

  • Conduct a communication audit of managers and staff in the business unit by (date).
  • Develop an internal communication strategy by (date).
  • Prepare a stakeholder relations strategy by (date).
  • Undertake an attitude survey of medium and high priority external stakeholder groups by (date in the following financial year).

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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