Line Managers - What are they good for?
There are two myths about line managers or supervisors and communications that you need to be wary of. However, there are plenty of good reasons for working closely with line managers when it comes to delivering your messages.
Myth No 1 – Line Managers are the best channel of communication
Sooner or later every internal communicator has to deal with this particular misconception.
Although local leaders are undoubtedly a potent force in communications for the reasons explored below, there is little evidence that they hold a supreme position above all other channels of internal communications.
Measurement expert Angela Sinickas (www.sinicom.com) has spent many years hunting in vain for elusive proof to support this widely held belief. However, like most popular fallacies there is a germ of truth in there.
What seems to be clear is that employees like to hear from their line manager on subjects in which the manager or supervisor is expert. So, we like our boss to explain how the corporate strategy will affect our team but we don’t expect them to be the best source on the detailed analysis behind the strategy. We wouldn’t naturally look to them for advice on the workings of the pension scheme or why chips cost less than sauté potatoes on the canteen menu.
Yet we do expect them to know about how work is to be allocated, what is happening in the team or about local developments.
Simply put – don’t expect your network of line managers to be effective when explaining subjects that they don’t understand or for which they are not credible sources.
Myth No 2 – They need to be told exactly what to say
Sending information down the line to local supervisors, expecting them to deliver it without any corruption, interpretation or deviation is clearly mad – or so we think.
Any message that is passed from one human to another will decay slightly at each step of the way. Even if you write it down in the simplest language you cannot control how it will be interpreted when read out in the rest room during a team meeting.
People don’t just listen to what is said – they read body language and tone of voice – check out the work of Albert Mehrabian for more insights.
And if you instruct managers to deliver a specific script, a fair proportion will just forward your email around the team - commonly with an unhelpful comment added – after all, who wants to be an animated notice board? Certainly no one who wants to maintain their credibility with the team they are expected to lead on a day-to-day basis.
If you pay these people to lead teams, you can at least credit them with the brains to explain things in their own way.
It’s about emotion and trust – not facts
There are plenty of good channels through which to deliver simple facts. Intranets, notice boards and memos work well for making sure that people have a consistent message and a place to refer to when they are ready to receive your information.
You might ask a local manager to distribute pieces of information – but if you want them to do that don’t expect them to add any value on its own. And remember you can’t rely on them to find time in their busy day to prioritise their job as your personal postal service.
Experience shows that local team leaders are actually most effective in three areas:
· Providing a local interpretation
· Building trust and support
· Helping understanding
If you would like to explore this issue further, you might want to read up on TJ Larkin, Bill Quirke or www.TrainingZone.co.uk.
When considering the role that you want line managers to play in your communications, you will need to think about what other channels you will use to support them and you need to ask yourself five simple questions.
Question one – have you told them it’s their job?
Being a team leader or supervisor is tough enough – and if something is not obviously your job are you going to worry about doing it?
Yet, according to research from publishers Melcrum, a tiny number of organisations actually have a clear set of competencies for comms skills for supervisors. Those that do tend to be light on detail – they’ll have a bland statement about good comms skills and often very little else.
So, if you are looking for guidance about what a manager should be doing on a regular basis, it seems that few people explain it.
By contrast, research over the last thirty or forty years has highlighted that communicating is the activity that is central to any supervisory role. Management writer Mintzberg said “The manager does not leave meetings or hang up the telephone in order to get back to work. In large part, communication is his or her work.”
The challenge for the communication is to get their organisation to explain clearly what is expected – this might appear in the competency model or in a statement from the CEO endorsing specific responsibilities.
....And tell them often
The other challenge facing many managers is that they don’t know what is expected of them on specific occasions. We might send out the CEO’s announcement and hope that team leaders will have the good sense to discuss it with the people who work for them.
But those team leaders won’t naturally realise that they need to check that people understand the announcement and there are still plenty of managers out there who don’t think they need to reassure their staff.
So good practice for communication is to include in manager packs simple instructions or requests of managers. For example, you might send a pack containing an announcement that is to appear on the intranet – so include a cover sheet saying what managers need to do. Should they make sure everyone in their team has seen the announcement? Should they hold a meeting to discuss local implications? Should they send feedback to someone in the organisation?
And remember that managers move around, get promoted or reorganise their teams. There are a million and one distractions, so don’t be embarrassed to keep telling people to do the same thing.
Question two – who’s told them?
Picture the scenario. Your management team has been debating the new strategy for months. There have been presentations from consultants. There was a big row but after the extended offsite meeting at a country club they have resolved their differences and are ready to launch the new direction for the organisation.
And how do they do it? It’s so hush hush that the first most managers know about it is when they receive a briefing pack telling them that there is going to be an announcement and that they need to follow it up with a team meeting to discuss the issues.
What do you think the chances are that those local managers will do anything or do it effectively?
And when communication goes wrong – how likely is it that the senior people in the firm will blame the middle management ‘marzipan layer’ for frustrating their efforts to paint a picture of a bold new world?
Good practice is to invest twice as much time in briefing the line managers as you expect them to spend on their teams. You need to find time to allow:
• Managers to test for themselves whether they agree with the message being suggested
• Them to make sure they really understand the message themselves
• People to hear how everyone else is going to handle the issue
• Senior figures to role model how they expect communications to happen.
The following techniques are worth considering:
· Hold an annual manager conference
Every communicator needs a context to refer to when hearing news. A regular meeting to explore the background to issues that are developing, discuss the wider environment and to give insights into senior management thinking is invaluable. Holding such events enable managers to give educated explanations of news when it breaks – rather than leave them guessing about the background.
· Pre-brief announcements
Hold an extended briefing meeting – in person or over teleconference prior to announcements or the launch of a campaign. Use them to make sure the key messages are emphasised and to get managers to reflect on the questions that might be asked of them. Debate the issues so that managers can be confident about their own understanding, the most appropriate way to handle issues and to voice any personal views that might hamper their own communication. Importantly these sessions can clarify what is confidential and what information they can share with their teams.
These sessions are also useful for reinforcing the message that communication matters and for senior leaders to demonstrate the behaviours they expect to see from their reports.
· Monthly update call
Organise a regular call when the most senior leaders talk to team managers or supervisors about upcoming issues and the messages that need to be shared. Incorporate a feedback item into the agenda so that local managers can report how previous messages have landed and feel part of the management process.
Crucially, ensure that managers have sufficient opportunity to digest messages before they have to debate them with their teams.
Question three – have they been trained?
Communication for leaders is not a natural skill or ability – and unsurprisingly many managers have a deep-seated fear of actually talking to groups. And even if they are fearless performers, not everyone knows how to plan a message or how to vary their style to generate a debate or facilitate a problem-sharing session. Others can be woeful when it comes to handling questions.
Team communications is also more than managing a presentation – a skill that is normally covered by most training departments. The challenge is to help managers prepare properly, vary their style and to involve people.
However, this is not to say that they don’t need to be able to speak in an engaging and compelling way. You don’t have to have the oratory skills of Barack Obama to be a good leader.
What should training cover?
Think about covering your training in two parts; confidence and delivery and preparation and planning.
· Confidence and delivery
Normally you can look to your colleagues in the training department to help with some of the physical or presentational aspects of communication with groups. Increasingly training companies run by actors are offering coaching on simple things like tone of voice or appearing confident (which is essential when trying to be reassuring!).
You should also look at facilitation skills and how to handle questions. Managers should realise that even the most hostile-sounding questions are not automatically a challenge to their authority, just an attempt to understand the difference between an existing state of affairs and a new announcement.
· Preparation and planning
Staff don’t expect their managers to be fantastic at communications but they do expect them to try. Failing to prepare will be noticed so talking managers through some simple steps is always valuable.
Many organisations back up the training with a simple guide or a team site for managers that contain simple processes and templates. Some sites also provide a space for colleagues to share experiences and to ask each other questions.
Little and often
Positioning the training can be a challenge – people can take offence at the suggestion that their communication skills can be improved! The below is worth considering:
· Link the training to a specific initiative
When launching an initiative or a major announcement, it can be worth including an element of communications skills training in the rollout. For example, one company ran an extended briefing around the launch of its new values – 50% of the briefing covered how to communicate the values to teams.
· Hold informal sharing sessions
Invite experienced managers to refresher sessions when they can share their valuable knowledge with more junior colleagues. It can be surprising how many seasoned old hands walk out commenting that they’d remembered things which they had long forgotten.
· Incorporate it into a wider conference
It can work well if you take specific topics and work them into a wider conference session. You can take the real issues being debated and use them as practical examples for lessons in customising messages, anticipating difficult questions or taking feedback.
· Tie it to management training
It works well to discuss with your colleagues in Learning and Development how communication can be woven into the syllabus of other management training activities. Catch the graduates on the training scheme or the finance people on the update courses that they attend.
Question four – have they got the tools they need?
Managers often complain about the poor quality of materials they receive to support communications. Common gripes include PowerPoint packs that are written for financial analysts and no one else or Q&A packs that include neither questions that anyone could ask nor answers that anyone sentient could believe.
Invest some time talking to managers about what they find useful. Often their homemade tools are far better than anything comms can dream up so it is worth borrowing from them.
Most importantly – give them what they need to do the job. Sending the same old rubbish, month after month isn’t going to win you any friends.
And consider sending nothing. One organisation we know provides managers only with a template that they fill out during a monthly meeting with their divisional head. It contains sections where they write in the main messages as they hear them as well as prompts like ‘what questions are my people going to ask?’ and ‘where can I refer people for more background?’ It means that managers are coached through important elements of the communications process month after month.
Question five – is anyone listening?
If managers think no one cares whether they communicate or not, then why should they bother investing time in it?
At its most basic, scores for communication from the annual engagement study can be used for appraising managers. However, few organisations do this because the data is rarely collected at a level that relates to specific managers.
Some organisations, especially those who run more traditional cascade processes, try to do spot checks on who has and who hasn’t held a team meeting. The benefit of knowing where communicating is working can be outweighed by the damage done to trust between the organisation and its managers.
A much more subtle approach is to make sure that managers get a sense that their feedback is being listened to and acted upon. When managers see their peers contributing to discussion fora or being thanked by senior leaders it sends a powerful message about what is considered normal in your organisation.
Importantly, when managers contribute feedback or raise questions they should always be given the weight that they deserve. Nothing stifles activity quicker than the realisation that senior leaders don’t care whether supervisors are communication or not.
Finally, support managers by reporting the feedback that they have shared. Team members want to be confident that the comments they make in meetings can reach the very top of the organisation. Prompting your chief executive to comment on specific feedback occasionally has a very potent effect.
For more information take a look at:
TJ and Sondra Larkin, Communicating Change - still provoking debate so many years on
Lyn Smith, Internal Communication - a handbook of tools and techniques
Bill Quirke, Making the Connections - the recently updated standard for internal communications
Harvard Business Review on Effective Communications - a selection of writings on different aspects of communications at work.