Insight article

The permafrost of middle managers

I enjoyed Melcrum’s Strategic Communications Summit last week. Great to see some old friends, new faces and hear some excellent speakers.

One of the key themes that kept cropping up was the ongoing issue of how to get middle / front-line managers to get on board with a company’s strategy. They are the ones who hold the trust of their teams, not the senior leadership team, so engaging them successfully – to the point that they will make it their business to engage their own teams – is absolutely crucial.

This is clearly a huge issue and one which clearly many organisations suffer from. One of the questions asked at the conference was ‘what do you do about those managers who seemingly appear not to care, and never will do? Do you give up on them, or is there a way of dealing with this issue?’

The good news is that there’s a solution.

The first reason why middle managers don’t engage their teams effectively are usually because they lack confidence and the skills to do it. Many middle managers have reached their position because they’re good at their job, not because they are good communicators or people managers. The second is that they simply can’t see the relevance of the overarching business journey to what they (or their team) does. There is no emotional connection, no personal pay-off in sight. So why should they care?

The first thing is to make it clear to them that a core leadership capability is communication. Then give them the skills and the tools to do it. Yet there’s still a critical job to be done to melt the permafrost, to break down the ‘granite wall’.

Managers need to have made a personal connection to the journey the business is on if they are to engage emotionally as well as rationally in it. By personal connection, we mean more than ‘what does this mean for us as a team’? It is the connection from which a leader (because managers are leaders) can see how the they can contribute, as leaders, to the journey, and in turn how the journey of the business will contribute to their own, personal agenda. Working through this, and enabling them to discover personal supporting material to add to their communications armoury in the way of anecdotes, proof points and killer facts on the way, will give them the confidence to help them bring the strategy to life in a way that is meaningful to their team. And only then can they hold a meaningful discussion with their teams about how the team can contribute – and in turn how the team will benefit. In other words, help their team make the connection.

We have recently developed a beautifully effective exercise which we run with leaders to help them bring the strategy to life and to make the connection. It makes total sense. Shouting louder simply won’t do it. You know where to call…!

Nailia Tasseel