← IC Matters · Best Practice

Stuck in the (frozen communications) middle with you!

Ethan McCartyEthan McCarty·

Line manager communication training is the essential bridge from leadership to the shop floor. Don’t let your company’s communications get stuck in the middle.

In our effort to digitize everything and scale up, we can easily lose sight of how we communicate with our own people. If you ask any professional communicator, you will notice that one of the essential mechanisms to reach an organization is through the management.

These individuals are not always selected for a manager role because of their great communication skills. Often they become managers because they are a subject matter expert and skilled practitioner, yet they’re not necessarily the best-equipped to message the company’s mission, strategy, purpose or values to their teams.

This missing skill is an opportunity for digital communications experts to become analog, but how do you do it?

  1. The first step: Start by listening. Is there a moment in the day where everybody convenes for coffee? Is there a point in the day when people check themselves against their team’s goals? Do virtual teams get together online on a weekly basis for a milestones check-in?

Ask yourself, “What are people doing today when it comes to their interaction with line managers that could become moments optimized or influenced by the communications team?”

As my grandfather, Wolfie Rand, often said, “You have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.”

  1. The second step: Talk with the managers within your organization. Ask them what are the hardest things for them to communicate.

Asking managers directly can sometimes be helpful; however, other times using surveys or analyzing 360 feedback reviews can provide the insights that you need to understand where your company’s managers struggle the most.

This goes without saying, but don’t end inquiry with managers. Ask front line employees as well.

  1. The third step: Design easily replicable rituals. Develop rituals for managers who may feel some anxiety or inadequacies around communicating.

Rituals can include:

  • Giving or taking feedback in a particular way that diffuses some of the awkwardness such as letter-writing
  • Introducing company values to everyday decisions by, for example, encouraging a small example or story shared at the top of each meeting
  • Giving context to the company’s strategy by, for example, sharing customer feedback in employee spaces like break rooms

Look for the opportunities for managers to have higher frequency, in-person, one on one or small group interactions as opposed to simply relying on broadcast mechanisms such as intranet articles, email blasts and town hall meetings for mass education.

Once you’ve designed one or two interactions for managers and employees, which could be as simple as giving them the fodder to start daily team meetings with a story or beginning a feedback session with an open question, see if you can find some of the superstar communicator managers to serve as exemplars of these new behaviors.

By equipping managers, your organization can avoid the “frozen middle” where culture, strategy, context, and meaning can go to die (and bring down engagement too.)

Historically, the function of middle management has been to funnel information and ideas between the upper echelons of a hierarchy to the lower. We often see the middle of organizations become “frozen” and be an area that fiercely resists change, because they have the most to lose. Modern enterprises are decreasingly hierarchically-linear and increasingly digitally-matrixed. Our communications systems and programs must follow suit.

Managers must be able to see themselves as drivers of positive change, but that’s scary. This is what creates a window of opportunity for Communications professionals to help middle managers see themselves as leaders and build, support and manage their ability to communicate a future in which everyone can see themselves. This ability to drive, navigate and stimulate ‘disruption’, is the killer app for the sophisticated and contemporary people-manager.


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