While I’m an advocate for direct communication and ensuring organizations have the ability to target content, there is still a place and time for cascading information to leaders and managers first. Perhaps the clearest example is in crisis situations. You want leaders and managers to be able to support the communication being sent and answer employee questions. But many organizations take for granted that managers know how to communicate effectively and are left frustrated when communication strategies are unsuccessful.
According to Gatehouse’s 2020 State of the Sector report, lack of line manager communication skills is one of the top three challenges facing communicators. Often, managers are promoted to positions because they are the best at performing a specific task or function, not because they have great people or communication skills. This inability to communicate can have very serious repercussions for your organization, and just acknowledging this skills gap is not enough. We need to contribute to a solution.
Here are three tips for identifying the gaps and building skills to support line managers in communicating with employees:
1. Review line manager training and onboarding programs with HR and Operations to see what (if any) communications curriculum is offered currently. It is possible that the training exists, it’s just not being reinforced. It’s also possible that the training hasn’t been updated to account for different situations (such as crisis) or the changing expectations of new generations entering the workforce. Either way, it’s best to not assume things are completely broken, but review what is available today and have the teams responsible for curriculum contribute to the solution.
2. Ask line managers for their feedback on what you’re asking them to communicate. Do this in the form of surveys, focus groups, and observations. Part of the challenge managers have in conveying important information may be in how we present the messages to them. Do we provide appropriate talking points and clearly state expectations for when and how communication should be cascaded from managers to employees? Maybe the skills are there but the resources are not. Observations can be particularly powerful in understanding what managers need from communicators to be successful. Sit in on an all-team meeting or area leadership meeting to see how information is dispersed. What are managers referencing when sharing information, what is the tone that’s used, are they able to answer employee questions with confidence?
3. Look at the data and follow the KPIs. Which managers and/or areas of the business are high performing? What are they doing better or differently from teams that struggle to achieve KPIs? We know that business outcomes often have a direct correlation to effective communication. Chances are when you find managers who are achieving goals, you’ll also find great communications skills and strategies being practiced. Learn from them and have them help create new tools and resources that will allow others to achieve the same success. An added benefit of following this tip: peer-to-peer learning is very successful with line managers who are sometimes skeptical of things coming from “corporate.”
While many communicators are not involved in training development within their organization, we can’t sit idly by waiting for others to solve this problem for us. We need managers to be great receivers and providers of communications. As experts in this area, we need to work with other business owners to ensure training and support is provided. We also need to advocate for communication skills to be taken into consideration as part of the hiring and promotion process. If we work cross-functionally, we can finally take the lack of line manager communication skills off our challenge list.