So, the world is a little weird right now. The working world is in a state of flux, things are changing day by day, and we’re all figuring out how to work within this new (for now) normal.
One of the ways things have changed is that all of a sudden, a lot of people who never had to think too much about how they communicated with their teams are finding themselves with a limited skill set and a need to figure it out fast. It’s a spotlight on a recurring challenge for internal comms pros, and it’s more important than ever that we step up.
Middle management has historically gotten a bad rap — even from us. According to Gallagher’s 2020 State of the Sector report, 43% of communications professionals report that the lack of communication skills in line managers is a major roadblock. 76% of us rate line managers as poor communicators, but a whopping 64% also say that supporting those managers in better communication is a low priority.
Now, I know we all play a bit of a precarious juggling game when it comes to balancing priorities, but these numbers seem to indicate a mismatch between what we’ve identified as a major roadblock and the focus many of us are willing to devote to address it.
If we don’t want our communications efforts to feel Sisyphean, and we want our far-flung teams to be firmly in the loop, we need to stop seeing the line manager as a roadblock and instead look at them as an area of opportunity—their skills, if we help develop them, can be a powerful tool in our arsenal.
It starts with recognizing that there is no reason most line managers would be good at communication, in the same way there’s no expectation that professional communicators are highly skilled at budgeting. They’re skills that both can be and need to be developed.
While I can’t say much about the budgeting, I’ve got some thoughts about how we can support our colleagues, and it really centers on first educating them that what we want to teach them should ideally make their lives easier and their results better.
Firstly, we can make an effort to learn their pain points. A lot of the time, communication isn’t a priority for line managers because they’ve got other problems that they feel take priority—particularly now. If we’re able to learn their pain points, provide support and prove that some pain can be alleviated with better communication, it’s an easier sell to get those managers to cooperate consistently in the future. Make sure you give them something useful!
Secondly, we can have to work to support their preferred communication style. If they resist, say, commenting and disseminating a cascade email, but have stated a preference for working (virtually) face-to-face, you might try presenting them with briefing notes and suggestions for micro-meeting formats, and some tips for engaging video meetings (topical Zoom backgrounds, anyone?). Perhaps they’d prefer to post something to a team Slack channel, tagging their team members and committing to discussion there? We know we need to understand our audience preferences; we need to consider intermediaries as an audience in and of themselves.
Finally, call in reinforcements. Like most of us, line managers prioritize their work based on what the people they report to have identified as their priorities. In this sense, any strategy that’s focused on engaging line managers in your communication efforts must also focus on engaging leadership and having them reinforce your mandate for their direct reports.
Resource: If you don’t have a formalized mandate, use this mandate overview and leadership questions tool as a starting point.