When we talk to friends, clients and contacts in middle management roles within medium to large organisations, they cite examples of poor internal communications as being the barrier to growth and success – and a major cause of frustration!
There is a lot of talk about the importance of having an excellent communicator at board level to spread key corporate messages throughout the workforce. However, we are increasingly coming across businesses and organisations who have ‘hard to reach’ employees, such as manufacturers dependent on a workforce of people on the factory floor or NHS Trusts and Local Authorities with people in ‘hands on’ and sometimes highly sensitive/regulated jobs in lots of different settings.
For these organisations, corporate messages from the board often get lost or ignored. Even in organisations where lines of communication are fairly straightforward, people tend to work in silos and become detached from the corporate goals and vision if messages are not properly filtered through the workforce. But organisations with more complicated structures risk completely losing touch with those that are most pivotal to their success in tough economic times. Failing organisations find it easy to blame those lower down the food chain for not sharing and delivering on targets. But in these tough economic times, it is those responsible for delivery that are both most vital for success and most vulnerable and disengaged. It’s not surprising that they don’t want to hear ‘motivational’ messages from highly paid directors.
Who is responsible for internal communications?
Good comms teams can come up with compelling content to engage the workforce and a good communicator at board level who values comms is key to its success. But messages often have little impact coming directly from them, especially with ‘hard to reach’ members of the workforce who are at the ‘coalface’. They might not even come into contact with the intranet, newsletters and other corporate communications channels.
So, middle managers are often given responsibility for breaking important news or hammering home messages to their teams to ensure that things are filtered down. But how is this information passed on to middle managers? And are they given the right training, support, resource and, most importantly, the autonomy to deliver their messages in their way?
How do you communicate with ‘hard to reach’ employees?
People on the factory floor or out in the field doing specialist and/or technical jobs need to be communicated with in a very tailored way that can be integrated into part of their every day job. The best people to do that are their immediate managers who they ‘check in’ with and interact with on a regular basis. They are also the people that have recently been where their staff have been and can relate to them and how they work.
However, even ambitious, motivated middle managers might be feeling low on morale at the moment. Often middle managers are people who have been promoted because they are technically very good at what they do. But that doesn’t mean that they have the skills to motivate and manage teams. Without proper training and support, your rising stars will soon become bogged down in carrying their teams by doing everything for them instead of delegating and nurturing their teams to do it themselves.
Middle managers are often treated as a ‘middle man’ to pass on corporate messages to their teams. Trying to ‘control’ messages in this way means that it gets distorted and levels of engagement get weaker and weaker the further down information is filtered. Not only do middle managers need to be given the trust and autonomy to shape and communicate messages in the way that they know is right for their teams, they also need input into what the messages should be. They will know if something is going to provoke a negative reaction and what needs to be done to reassure people. As the board, you need to empower middle managers to be able to say what/where/when/how things need to be said.
Who do middle managers need to communicate with?
Empowering middle managers to tailor and communicate messages to their own teams is important but they also need to be able to share what their teams are doing with others across the business. For example, most people will not know (or think they need to know) how the finance team manages the annual audit but for it to run smoothly they need support from everyone across the business. If they were encouraged to share how the process works and thank everyone for their role in it in simple, non-technical terms, it would make the process much easier the next time around, saving time and money. Likewise with marketing, HR and other functions. It is not about directors of certain departments stressing the need for others across the business to help, it is about middle managers explaining what needs to be done and creating a team-working culture.
Getting middle managers together for a monthly or quarterly forum to discuss ideas and share best practice is key and they also need to be encouraged to ‘manage upwards’ and feedback to directors on how their teams are feeling/working and what could be done to improve systems, processes and delivery of targets.
Do you trust your middle managers to not only understand the technical aspects of their part of the business but also be responsible for ‘grassroots’ communication with their teams? Yes, they need management and communications training and support – but they also just need to be trusted as the people who know best.