My current, as yet unpublished PhD research, suggests that employees are very interested in knowing how their organisation is progressing. Why? Because they understand that the success of the organisation has a direct link to their own job security.
However, they expect senior managers to tell them about organisational progress, not their line manager. This is very important; when employees are updated personally by senior managers, they feel included and valued.
But it is not big powerful speeches that employees expect today. They prefer more regular informal sessions with senior managers in small groups that enable meaningful conversations.
Recent research conducted by PR Academy in the UK revealed that public relations practitioners rated senior managers very highly for public speaking, media relations, networking and stakeholder management. However, they did not rate them very highly for internal communication, listening and employee engagement. The value of internal communication and employee engagement still seems to be trumped by external communication. However, De Beer (2014, pp. 139-40) argues that a narrow understanding of corporate communication in terms of media relations will have to make way for a broader view of a function that comprises both internal and external communication. This calls for senior managers to treat internal communication seriously both as a function and as a personal responsibility to communicate with employees. However, unfortunately, it is often seen as ‘dead time’ by managers (Tourish and Hargie, 2009, p. 14).
I fear that until internal communication is better established in Business Studies degrees and MBAs, it will always struggle to be recognised as a strategic function that contributes directly to the bottom line. However, practice also has to change. As Christensen and Cornelissen (2010, pp. 12-13) point out, when managers too strictly try to manage and control communication it may actually undermine employee well being and morale.
For many years as an internal communication practitioner, I was involved in producing cascade team briefings, based on the accepted wisdom that the line manager is the most important person in the communication process. This ‘wisdom’ can now be challenged; it depends on the topic of conversation. Galunic and Hermreck (2012) found that top management has a profound impact on how well employees grasp and support strategy. They note that this has implications for a reliance on ‘cascade’ communication where senior leaders communicate with their direct reports and depend on them to disseminate it to frontline workers. Their research indicates that a belief in cascades may be misplaced. Instead, a new approach to practice should focus on facilitating informal senior manager communication with employees, where listening is as important as informing.
Middle managers can play a role in helping line managers to ‘translate’ corporate strategy into a meaningful local context, so that line managers can explain how local team work fits into the bigger, strategic picture. Line managers can then concentrate primarily on communication about local issues, which is what their team expects them to do.
Kevin Ruck is co-founder of the PR Academy in the United Kingdom.
Christensen, L.T., Cornelissen, J. (2010). Bridging Corporate and Organizational Communication: Review, Development and a Look to the Future, Management Communication Quarterly XX(X) 1–33.
De Beer, E. (2014). Creating value through communication, Public Relations Review, 40, 136-143.
Galunic,C., and Hermreck, I. (2012). How to Help Employees “Get” Strategy, Harvard Business Review, December 2012.
Tourish, D. and Hargie, O. (2009). Communication and organizational success, in Hargie O. and Tourish, D. (Eds.) Auditing Organisational Communication, Hove: Routledge.