The line managers’ communication conundrum

Anyone who’s worked in the Internal Communication profession in the last 15 years will understand the challenge posed by line managers and the role they play in effective communication, employee engagement, and influencing organisational culture.

There’s a maxim that “people don’t leave companies, they leave managers”. Personally I’m not convinced – I’ve left both, but Gallup research[1]shows one in two people have left their job to get away from their manager, which is staggering. However you look at it, line managers are fundamental to the employee experience at work. Your manager can influence the work you do, your reputation, performance, development, and ultimately how you feel about coming to work.

In fact, Gallup research also shows that managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units[2]. So having managers who can bring out the best in their people seems pretty essential to any organisation keen to engage their employees.

Key to bringing out the best in people is effective communication and engagement: recognising and valuing their contributions, actively seeking their ideas and opinions, helping to connect the organisational story with the day-to-day activity of the team. Yet for some reason, a managers’ inability to communicate is frequently stated as a difficulty, a barrier, or a frustration in many organisations.

The 2019 “State of the Sector[3]” report, which looks at trends in Internal Communication practices, recently concluded that as a profession “we’ve surrendered the battle against poor line manager communication”. Based on their research, fewer than one in five of IC professionals are planning to enhance line managers’ communication skills this year, compared with one in three last year.

So why is this such a difficult problem to solve, and what can business leaders, communicators and engagement specialists do about it? I believe we start with three simple questions:

  1. Do managers know what’s expected from them?

It might sound obvious but from experience, the term “line manager” can cover a huge spectrum of different roles, levels of experience and functions. The only thing that connects the group is that they have people reporting to them. For some, managing their teams may be a primary element of their role. For others, it’s a very small part of the job. So, the question has to be asked; has there been the time taken to outline what they are expected to do in terms of communicating with and engaging their team, or is it just assumed that they’ll know?

  1. Are they engaged, equipped and enabled?

And by engaged, equipped and enabled I mean, do they have the understanding, the skills and the time to communicate and engage effectively with their teams.

Let’s start with understanding. Often, particularly in periods of change, the rationale and the context for change is debated by a very small group of strategists and decision makers at the early stage of the process. Senior leaders are then often engaged, usually face-to-face, and have the chance to explore what it means for their functions. By the time line managers hear about whatever news or change is being communicated (often by email or conference call), the conversation has moved beyond “why”, and is focused only on “what”, “where” and “how”. This leaves line managers with only part of the story and incomplete understanding. Sound familiar?

The other scenario that often plays out is that the topic that needs to be shared is confidential – sometimes share-price sensitive – which means there is limited time to share with line managers before they’re expected to have conversations with their teams. The risk here is that managers aren’t able to ask questions and fully explore the issues. Often they’re not engaged, simply told, which means it’s a very big ask to expect them to subsequently engage their teams, even if they are highly accomplished.

Which brings us to skills. Communication skills aren’t always something line managers have been “trained” in. Indeed in many organisations there’s an assumption that if you are a manager then you’ll be good at communicating. But this is flawed logic. Many managers become managers by dint of their talent and performance in their previous role. For example the best salesperson may go on to become area manager, regional manager, and then sales director. But the skills needed to be the best salesperson are not necessarily the skills needed to lead a high-performing team.

  1. What happens if they don’t deliver?

We’re talking here about impact and outcomes. We know the resulting impact of managers not communicating well – headaches for communication professionals aside –diminishing employee engagement levels, eroding trust, lack of connection to purpose and strategy, the list goes on.

But what about the outcomes for the managers themselves? Is their performance measured on their ability to communicate and engage? Does anyone follow up with them? Are they held to account? Are those managers who are great recognised and used as role models?

Get answers

These three questions can quickly help identify where the issues may lie. How do you go about getting answers to these questions? Simple – talk to your managers, ask them about their experiences, what barriers they face, what would help them. Investment in dialogue with and building understanding of this vital audience is essential to solving the conundrum.

[1]Gallup, 2015 www.gallup.com

[2]Gallup, 2015 www.gallup.com

[3]State of the Sector Vol 11 – The definitive global survey of the internal communication profession – Gatehouse and Gallagher CommunicationThe