Insight article

The quandary of middle managers

Some very clear themes and topics of concern emerged from this year’s Employee Engagement and Employer Brand conference organised by Osney Media.  It was particularly interesting to hear David Macleod and Nita Clarke, authors of the government-commissioned  Macleod Report, speak on their key findings regarding employee engagement from the extensive research conducted across numerous organisations.

The issue relating to middle management engagement and communication seems to be an area of particular concern; how to reach out and inspire this layer of the organisation to allow key messages to permeate through to the wider employee base.  It is a perennial problem….words such as ‘permafrost’, ‘marshmallow layer’ and ‘concrete sponge’ populated table discussions, with a real appetite for practical tools and methodologies to combat the issue of manager-inertia / communication skills and strategic focus, especially within the public sector.

Of course, not all managers can be tarred with the same brush, and some organisations have absolutely got it right.  Al Meyer, Internal Communications Manager at LeasePlan (UK) explained how a simple, strategic narrative of their ‘Good To Great’ journey has helped unite people behind a common purpose, with remarkable results.  LeasePlan’s Story needed to be seen as part of the fabric of people’s everyday working lives, so required constant reinforcement and communication over a period of years rather than just months as it has evolved.  LeasePlan can now boast to be an organisation which has moved from one with little trust in the senior team and low levels of strategic understanding and engagement, to one which has extremely high levels of trust in the senior management and where people understand (and regularly discuss in teams) the role and contribution they can play in the journey.  Interestingly, LeasePlan is a very data-driven organisation, so the storytelling approach they adopted has been quite a departure from their conventional methods of communication.  What is so remarkable is the fact that every manager holds a monthly Friday huddle with his/her team to discuss the priorities or behaviours that characterise the journey, supported by some creative tools that allow teams to plot their progress and link their action plans back to the Story.  Terrific.

The rules of breaking through the middle management layer are simple….but they require effort, constant focus and reinforcement and investment.  Here are my top ten tips:

Make sure managers and their teams understand the big picture, the context within which they are asked to act and behave.  Without this they are operating in a vacuum and the task lacks meaning.
Help managers to understand what the strategic messages mean to them, both personally and as a team.  Relevance and meaning will open hearts and minds.
Make sure your managers are completely clear that communications is a core competency of a good leader.  Many are promoted because they’re good at the job, not good at people management.
Give training, coaching and support to those who need it.  Lack of time is an excuse.  Lack of confidence is usually the real cause.
Give practical tools to supplement skills.  Props, structure and toolkits will help the confidence factor.  Don’t be afraid to be creative and focus on dialogue, not simply ’show and tell’
Don’t rely simply on hierarchy to get the message across.  Some managers simply won’t step up to the mark, so make full use of the natural influencers and ‘ambassadors’ in the organisation to support the reinforcement.
Make full use of your internal communications channels to reinforce messages and support manager communication, both verbally and visually.  Different ‘generations’ respond to different media, eg
social media such as Twitter and Facebook to more conventional communications tactics such as newsletters.  Use them all!
Help managers become good storytellers – it helps bring dry principles, statistics and abstract data to life.
Ensure your managers can see role-models in the senior team, so they can become good role-models themselves.
Reward and recognise good behaviours and success stories.  Carrots are more attractive than sticks!

Nailia Tasseel