This blog is presented by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center.

I know this may come as a surprise to you, but managers are not always hired based on their communications skills. Shocking, I know! But seriously, it’s often expertise in the field/industry that snags a high-performer his or her promotion into management. That’s where we communications professionals can step in to equip managers with the necessary tools to succeed as leaders among their teams. If you need to make the case or you’re not convinced of the impact ineffective internal communications can have, check out “Where Employee Engagement Fails.”

Let’s start with why organizations employ managers in the first place. There are so many answers to this question, but here are five of the top reasons:

  1. Scale business owners’ ability to direct the work of employees and others
  2. Scale the business owners’ ability to detect problems and opportunities
  3. Speed up decision-making by moving it closer to the issue
  4. Provide an interface between employees and executives
  5. Model and enforce rules and norms within an organization

Although companies may feel as though they already empower their managers to take action in these areas, it is worthwhile to continuously revisit the content, context and communications support your company provides managers. This how-to guide on line manager communications is a piece I wrote for Poppulo that you can read for free.

So, how can communications professionals enable these functions in an increasingly digital world of work? By changing and capitalizing on what I like to call, “The Five F’s.”

  1. Frequency
  2. Formality
  3. Focus
  4. Format
  5. Facilitation

The dynamic fluidity of today’s digital workplace requires managers to have greater situational awareness. To do that, managers must understand what’s coming in between their team and success, which will lead them to be aware of and remove any blockers. As comms professionals, we can help socialize and normalize new methods to increase managers’ interactions with their teams. Agile methods like Scrum have emerged to cope with the expectation for teams to change with the market — and increasingly these methods are applicable outside of their software development origins. For example, instead of holding the tired weekly or monthly target meetings, try replacing them with a daily 15-minute stand up where the focus is on removing blockers and opening those lines of communications.

“58% of employees look to their employer to be a trustworthy source of information about social issues and other important topics on which there is not general agreement.”- 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report

Think about it, do you feel more confident cascading messages that were written by someone else or when you have to develop them on your own? People hide behind formality when they don’t feel confident in their ability to convey an idea or context. But employees aren’t looking to managers just for their guidance on tasks, they’re looking for that context and answer to the question, “How does this affect me and our team?”

Communications professionals can focus on giving line managers sufficient context around the company’s business goals, its societal impact and cultural aspirations in order to build managers’ confidence through increased clarity and transparency. Managers can only decrease their levels of formality when they feel personally connected to the organization. This confidence will improve their ability to translate business goals into their own language, use personal examples and perspectives and share what it all means to their teams.

Historically, the manager directs and the employees listen. It doesn’t (and in my opinion, shouldn’t) need to be this way. All too often, we equip managers with tools and talking points to talk at their employees. When developing these assets for managers, consider how your communications approach might offer opportunities to reverse the roles. Communications professionals can shift the focus from the manager leading the conversation by talking to leading the conversation by listening. For example, during my time at Bloomberg, we created a video series for the Sales function. The video series had the Head of Sales interviewing sales employees who demonstrated laudable behavior rather than having the Head of Sales present/talk to the sales employees. Consider what format is right for your company and try it out. It’s amazing how the dynamic can change when managers do not feel pressured to be the center of communications.

Shakespeare once said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” But, to me, even that is a bit long, formal and bland. I prefer to go with #BrevitySoulWit. The transition from relying on long, well-structured memos to posting brief updates in a group chat is not a change that every line manager will be comfortable with, but we communications professionals can help.

While it’s true that we should all be considering how “snackable” content plays in our editorial strategy, instead of thinking about this change to brevity as unique to our profession, let’s think about it as “how can we use #BrevitySouldWit to help line managers be understood by their people.” The solution to this differs depending on your company, but think of technology deployments such as Yammer, Slack and Facebook Workplace as wind in your sails on this one. Ensure managers get the support they need to become comfortable with using these channels in an informal manner as part of their work habits. This will lead to them becoming more personable and approachable to their people (by equipping them with these tools and using these tools yourself, you contribute to normalizing the behavior).

The Edelman Trust Barometer now ranks company technical experts as the most trusted source of information about companies. Regular employees aren’t far behind and both types of employees easily out-rank the CEO. Are your managers supplied with the right tools to facilitate conversations? Or, are they just shuttling information up and down a managerial hierarchy?

Communications professionals can swoop in and save the day here by facilitating these facilitators. Go from telling managers to inform their team on instructions to asking managers what they think is best. Simply put, this means we go from providing managers with talking points to developing a discussion guide with them to drive exploration and innovation.

The best discussion guides provide enough structure to encourage a manager to feel confident in sharing context with their teams, ask exploratory questions, handle confrontation, and collect and share insights.

Phew! Now that was a lot of information (and me talking at you). So, here’s a recap, communications pros CAN change the “Five F’s” by keeping the following in mind:

  • Frequency: Equip managers for lighter-weight engagements with higher frequency
  • Formality: Decrease formality in interpersonal interactions while preserving authority
  • Focus: Enable managers to shift the focus from themselves to the people within their teams as the subject and the storytellers
  • Format: Develop disposable content and in-person experiences for managers to communicate with their teams
  • Facilitation: Facilitate transparent and meaningful exchanges including providing managers with the right tools to clearly communicate expectations

The ideas in this article were originally published in a blog post and webinar hosted by Poppulo.

Ethan McCarty, CEO, Integral Communications Group
For twenty years I’ve held roles — at IBM, Bloomberg and elsewhere — where the idea of the “internality vs externality” of organizational constructs and information flows have been pressured both intentionally and unintentionally. I founded Integral Communications Group based on the core belief that an organization’s people are its first public…an idea that modern firms embrace to great reward and ignore at their peril.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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