It’s time to stop blaming line managers for not cascading communications effectively and equip them with the tools they need to do it
In many organisations a new strategy or direction is dreamt up in the board room and hotly debated around the senior leadership team. HR might get involved, or possibly IT. Then the comms team will be told to create a suite of messages to cascade down through managers to the general workforce.
Once delivered, it’s up to the company communicator to test the temperature and find out if the message has landed, where it’s landed, if people understand it, and whether they know what they need to do as a result. Are behaviours changing, is everyone ‘on board’? Are there any questions, challenges, obstacles?
More often than not you’ll find your carefully crafted comms have gone no further than line managers’ desks to be covered in corporate tumbleweed. It’s easy to blame them for being the blockage to communicating company-wide, but think about it, whose fault is that really?
Have you invested time in making sure your line managers actually buy into the messaging the Board wants them to communicate? Quite often the first time they learn about a new strategy is when they are given a briefing pack telling them there’s going to be an announcement and that they need to follow it up with a team meeting.
It’s good practice to invest twice as much time in briefing your line managers as you expect them to spend on their teams.
Before they become the company mouthpiece they need to be able to test for themselves whether they agree with the message being suggested, as well as the way they are being asked to deliver it. They need the opportunity to ask questions so they really understand and support the strategic importance behind a change or shift before they can confidently convey it to their teams.
Pre-announcement meetings, regular monthly update calls or annual manager conferences are all ways you can include line managers in the conversation. But don’t just take my word for it. Research suggests that engaging managers at the start of a cascade means they are fully aware of what they need to do and how they need to do it, as well as why it needs to be done.
Once you’ve involved them in the rationale, and they understand what needs to be done, what happens next? The State of the Sector report for 2017 states that ‘when asked about barriers to success, the single most pressing challenge was the lack of line manager communication skills (52 per cent)’. Encouragingly that’s one per cent up from 2016, but communication is not a natural skill or ability, despite it being fleetingly mentioned in many managerial job descriptions.
A lot of managers are actually nervous about talking to groups of people, let alone giving presentations around ideas that aren’t their own. Even the most extrovert boss may not know how to plan a message, vary their style, encourage two-way conversations, or field tricky questions.
So your second challenge is to prepare them properly so they can deliver effectively.
Managers don’t have to have the oratory skills of Barack Obama but they do need to articulate the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘what now?’. Sometimes some basic training in planning, preparation and delivery, as well as how to handle difficult questions, is all it takes to instil the confidence they need to understand that communication, quite often, is very much part of the job description.
Being a manager today is part boss, part psychologist, part social worker and part politician. It’s not surprising that many struggle with the ‘people’ aspect of their roles, especially if they have worked their way up to the post and may now be managing people who were once peers.
If we’re asking line managers to communicate key messages, it’s only fair that we provide them with the tools they need to be comfortable doing just that.
There’s little point in providing a PowerPoint deck that no one understands (or worse, without notes) or Q&A packs that don’t include the questions people are likely to ask or answers that anyone can believe.
Talk to managers about what they find useful. Inspire confidence by encouraging them to put their own stamp on each communication; sharing personal stories about their own experiences can be a powerful way to bring messages to life.
Paint them a picture of what outcomes you envisage after they have communicated to their teams and invite them to give feedback on how the message was received. Show them you value their role as a manager and communicator rather than treating them as some sort corporate puppet on top of the day job.
That way, they’re not only engaged themselves but are much more likely to engage your employees as well. We all know, engaged employees who ‘get’ the corporate strategy are more productive, and that has a direct impact on the bottom line.