“The secret to improving internal communication is to focus on line managers.”

That’s one of the most popular comments that I’ve heard from #internalcommunication folks over the years. It’s also an idea that I’ve never bought.

Aside from the fact that the idea isn’t exactly a secret, it’s also something I’d call a “near-myth” – an idea that’s intuitive and easy to grasp, but also one that can often lack the desired impact relative to the work required to deliver it.

Here are some reasons why I’d advise internal communicators to think twice about seeing line managers as the potential answers to all of their communication problems:

1.) Managers face many demands, communication only being one.

Many have had limited preparation for their roles in many cases, and are essentially expected to have the business acumen and tenacity of a Jeff Bezos, the inspirational qualities of Winston Churchill, the compassion of Mother Teresa and the determination of Nelson Mandela.  Oh, and sometimes they’re expected to make sure the practical work is done perfectly as well.

Trying to turn managers into a primary communication channel might actually backfire –  making them resist the additional “burden” if their own KPIs don’t give them incentive to play ball.

2). Managers have their own agendas.

In organizations that are continuously seeking greater efficiency, managers are under increasing pressure to justify their roles to their own superiors.  In some cases, this can lead to managers holding onto information to make themselves more powerful and more central to their team’s activities.  

They may also have varying levels of enthusiasm for corporate initiatives, which will be reflected in the way they emphasize or de-emphasize the value of those initiatives to their people.  They may deliver the content as written, but not necessarily with the tone that’s intended.

3). Employees have other information sources, like intranets and word-of-mouth.

One of the most important messages in organizations that have offices and factories is the day’s canteen menu.

Now, many employees may express a preference for receiving messages from their managers, as mentioned in this year’s IC Index Report, but they don’t need to have the manager recite the canteen menu to them every day. 

Instead, some employees will look on the intranet or poster board for the canteen menu themselves.  They may then take the initiative to tell their colleagues what’s for lunch.  They may also reply when asked about what’s for lunch.

Employees who have their own knowledge, and who have a track record of being knowledgeable and trustworthy, are also sought out for their take on bigger issues than lunch menus.  They are influencers who add context to your corporate communication, and have similar or greater credibility than managers in delivering and reinforcing business messages.

This is how word-of-mouth works in organizations – and in fact, it’s how most communication works in organizations.

Where do managers actually fit in?

Managers are important to internal communication to the extent to which they can be seen as reliable and authoritative sources of clarity – particularly about what they should be working on and about the extent to which they feel that their jobs and status are secure.

Consequently, rather than trying to make the manager the one-size-fits-all delivery person for their staff, the game is to better equip the manager to frame the clarity of what’s certain in the organization, and to help employees navigate the ambiguities.  

In other words, employees are much more interested in finding out from managers whether they will have a job tomorrow rather than what’s for lunch tomorrow.

What does this mean for communicators?

Instead of seeing how much communication they can channel through managers, communication pros should think about adding as little as possible to managers’ already considerable workloads, and how to make the business less dependent on managers whose agendas might not align with those of the business.  

Here are some ways to do this

  • Make better use of your other formal channels to deliver actionable information quickly and directly.

  • Identify your influencers and make sure they are at least as well informed as your managers, so that they don’t have to connect the dots and make up stories themselves.

  • Focus your manager communication on the essential, authoritative role in supporting employees in doing their jobs and, as best as possible, having them know where they stand.

Each of these steps requires us to rethink the communication role of the manager.  It may seem intuitive to have the manager as the primary communication channel. But while that might reflect our own need for convenience, it neither respects the burdens and autonomy of managers, nor the actual communication flows that currently work well in your organization. 

Proceed with caution. And if you need some guidance about how to proceed, please ping me at mike.klein@changingtheterms.com.

Mike Klein

Mike Klein is Principal of Changing The Terms, a consultancy focused on internal, change and social communication. Mike has worked with organizations in the US and Europe for more than 20 years on pressing strategic communication challenges, and is a prolific writer and commentator on communication strategy topics. Mike is also the Founder of #WeLeadComms, an initiative to drive open recognition and in the communication profession. He holds an MBA from London Business School, and is a former US political consultant.




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