Engaging and Empowering Line Managers as Communicators

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by Sophie Rena

When David Gallagher, an internal communications and change consultant, assumed responsibility for communications after his company merged he thought that there wasn’t too much that could go wrong. David was the Head of Retail Stores when in November 2012, following the merger of EE with Orange and T-Mobile, an overnight rebranding exercise took place which included the entire suite of Orange and T-Mobile’s store front facias changing to the new EE brand.

David Gallagher
David Gallagher

The merger, while successful, presented a number of challenges to store managers.  Says David, ‘It had all happened on the same day. Everything outwardly changed: new uniform, new store fit-outs, new equipment. The rebrand had to be so confidential that even what training there was was covert. But amidst the excitement,  store managers faced huge problems just even trying to understand how to use the new systems let alone explaining to their people, “What does all this mean?”.  You have to remember also that culturally, both brands, up until this time had been fierce competitors.’

Keeping the critical line management cohort informed, as well as relying on them to cascade key messaging was the subject under discussion at Comma Partner’s latest networking event, Empowering Line Managers. That line managers play a vital role in organisational communication wasn’t in dispute. Says Virginia Hicks of Comma Partners, ‘Line managers are, almost always, a vital strategic communications link within an organisation, serving as a bridge between senior management and employees and making sure employees are aware and understand an organisation’s strategy and goals.’

However, it was also clear among this group of seasoned communicators that there are a number of challenges in ensuring that the line manager is both willing and able to play their part. One of the main themes that came through was a line manager’s ability and aptitude as a communicator. They might be good at their operational roles but are they natural people managers, equipped with the right skills and capabilities?

Are you receiving me?

Bridgette Sunman, change communications consultant and coach, says,

Bridgette Sunman
Bridgette Sunman

‘In most organisations you will find that about 30-40% of line managers are natural communicators: they want to be good leaders and they instinctively  know how to communicate. Then you have a broader number who are reticent communicators: it’s not their priority and probably doesn’t come naturally to them, but, presented with a good case by a communications team, they will engage. There is always a roughly 20% who don’t see the benefit of engaging with communications at all. That’s often where our real challenge is, finding ways to engage the whole line manager population.’

The discussion came back to a manager’s communication competencies several times. Many agreed that there needs to be more rigour and structure to the line manager’s people management role: it is not enough just to assume that line managers have natural leadership and communication skills, they need capability training if they are to be tasked with, for example, communicating difficult messages.  Do they have the capability to deliver such messages or the insight that they need to understand the bigger picture? Are they given enough time to understand and absorb the message themselves? Does the message impact them as well?

Will, skill and content

Says Clare Lucraft, internal and change communication consultant: ‘I see empowering line managers as being down to will, skill and content. In terms of communication, line managers need to know what they need to do, feel motivated to do it, with the communications team there to provide good content’.

Clare Lucraft
Clare Lucraft

Buddying up with HR in order to upskill communication competencies came up in the debate several times. Again, Clare; ‘Get into bed with HR fast. Managers need to be trained in the ability to have honest conversations, to actively listen, to manage performance. All these are learnt skills.’

But what communicators come up against time and again, is an organisation’s reticence to invest in this type of coaching unless there is a business-critical need, such as driving through a change quickly. An organisation’s culture and the value it places on good communications plays a key part in that investment decision. Says Bridgette, ‘I’ve certainly seen organisations where the focus for line managers has been on numbers and delivery, rather than people skills. If the organisation doesn’t value a culture of good management and communication, then there are likely to be communication challenges.’

Clare agrees: ‘It requires a large amount of investment to upskill. It’s always a ‘nice to have’, never an essential. You do need to find that ‘burning platform’ to make the case for training.’ Her top tip is to take advantage of a crisis to implement your communication training requirements. Adds Clare, ‘There’s usually only a small window of opportunity.’

And when the line manager is doing things right celebrating success also has its part to play. Says Clare, ‘Don’t forget to make heroes out of those managers who are great communicators. Kudos for their approach can lead to positive ripples across the organisation’.

Content is king

While hard-wiring communication into performance management skills drives up competencies, as Clare points out, quality content remains key. Cascade briefs, team briefs, scripts, videos: these are some of the traditional and still frequently used tools in the communications team’s toolkit. Bridgette has her own set of guidelines when producing toolkits: ‘I follow the principals of FAB,’ she says. ‘Is the toolkit ‘Fit-for-purpose’? Is it something that the manager can use easily? Is it ‘Adaptable’? Can the manager add a ‘human’ face to it, to gain a team’s hearts and minds? And what is the ‘Business requirement’ – is it tied into HR and leadership goals? Is it aligned to business strategy and where the business needs to go?’.

But toolkits come with their own risks; if you just ‘throw them over the fence’ then there is a danger of poor and inconsistent follow-through. This is exactly what David experienced, following the EE merger when he found himself taking on the additional responsibility of communications. He told us, ‘What I learnt is that there is a whole world of difference between how a message is communicated and how it is received and then ‘cascaded’ down the management line’. He soon realised developing a strategy and toolkits was the easy bit, getting his people to understand and engage with them proved much harder. For example, he found his line managers might communicate the message but add their own interpretation as well, which wasn’t always positive one. In some cases, he discovered, his managers would simply encourage colleagues to sign the brief – negating the need for the line manager to carry out the role of passing on the message.

Clare and Bridgette have approached the need for toolkit guidance in similar ways. ‘In one organisation where I worked’ says Bridgette, ‘we developed a video which included one of the more ‘media’ friendly managers and some of his line reports being videoed going through the key messages and a short, three or four, question Q&A. This way, the video provided both the necessary information but also served as a ‘what good looks like’ which other line managers were encouraged to emulate.’ In another example, when Clare was overseeing the communication of a large restructure, her team brought actors in to role-play to managers how to communicate redundancies. It’s also important to measure and evaluate how the packs are being received, so that they can be modified in future iterations. ‘You can’t just assume that it’s going to land the way you intended it to. You need to make sure and adapt where necessary’ says Bridgette.

It’s not difficult to understand why managers may overlook the need to conduct a team brief when you consider the ever-increasing demands placed on line management. As one of the attendees at the event illustrates;  her global organisation carried out a communications audit by measuring the number of emails a manager received in one week which asked them to do something in addition to the scope of their role. Their findings?  Managers received 48 extra requests a week. Add to this the challenge of often dispersed,  virtual teams and the cultural variance of global organisations and the traditional cascade can seem a demand too far!

Not surprisingly, communications toolkits are also changing with these digital times. While the briefing pack is still popular, Bridgette is beginning to see the effective use of digital tools such as apps, e-books and digital games. She says,  ‘It makes communication more accessible and more engaging. A lot of employees are using their phones for work now, especially on their commute. So anything that is fun and easy-to-use is going to land well these days.’

Lead by example

The importance of a senior leadership which demonstrates the right behaviours and values  shouldn’t be underestimated either. If a manager has not experienced good management they may not be motivated to be good managers themselves – or, for some, it might provide the catalyst to do something differently. Clare agrees that positive role-modelling is vital. She says, ‘A big driver of people manager skills comes from a  manager’s own experience. If they have had a great boss who communicated well, they have an example to follow. If it was a poor experience – that may make them equally determined to take a very different approach.’

That said, there was some debate within the groups around how important senior managers were in the communications mix. Many agreed that the hierarchical nature of organisations often meant that senior leaders often appear remote to employees, and therefore their messages may not be considered ‘honest’ or ‘transparent’. Whereas messages from line managers tended to feel more ‘real’ and ‘relevant’.

Sophie Rena
Sophie Rena

Similarly, while most agreed that line managers are an important ‘channel’ it was recognised that they themselves are not always considered the most reliable source of information.  Sophie Rena, change and engagement communications consultant, suggests, ‘You need to understand where people naturally get their messages from – it may well be their line managers but it could also be their peers, or colleagues in the organisation who are considered to be ‘influencers’ regardless of their official roles, or even someone they speak to regularly at lunch or by the water-cooler. It comes down to trust, who do your employees trust the most? Is it always their managers?’

The changing nature of the workplace has its part to play as well. Hierarchies in some organisations are flattening and this may influence the traditional cascade communication structure. Sophie adds, ‘Millennials are starting to come through into the management line and bring with them a very different mindset; one where diversity of thought and a less slavish respect for management may challenge the typical ‘top down’ flow of messaging’.

The debate necessarily had to conclude at this point. Whether the  line manager is regarded as a ‘channel’  or not or if we see them as heroes or sometimes even villains, all within the Comma network were in agreement that they deserved communications support. As Bridgette Sunman points out, ‘They are being asked to do more, often with less, and under constant pressure to deliver. Communications teams must help empower them now more than ever before.’

Sophie Rena is a change and engagement consultant and former journalist. She is interested in people, great communication and behaviour change.

Comma Partners provides internal and change communications specialists and experienced coaches to clients who need high calibre expertise on an interim basis. Clients and candidates can contact Virginia Hicks on 0208 943 0686 or visit www.commapartners.com