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Are line managers a barrier for Internal Communications?

Internal Communications

Are line managers a barrier for Internal Communications?

Jonathan Davies


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5 mins read

Wed, Jul 3, '19  

There’s one annual survey that all Internal Communications specialists turn to, that they wait with bated breath for and pore over for days seeking the latest insights on which to base their next 12 months. 

It’s the Gatehouse State of the Sector report, and it’s been going for more than a decade. This year they received more than 820 responses from over 40 countries, so it’s a truly global insight into how Internal Communications is viewed and handled around the world. The report highlights not just the good in Internal Communications, but also the bad — those Internal Communications barriers that are tripping up practitioners, and the key items those Internal Communications specialists are putting priority on for the coming year.

Look at it year-on-year, though, and one thing keeps coming up as an Internal Communications barrier — and, to date, it hasn’t made its way to the list of priorities for things to focus on and fix despite that blockage. It’s two words that make many an Internal Communications specialist groan with dismay — the pesky impediment that is the humble line manager. 

Why do line managers get such a bad rap?

To be fair to Marv the Manager, the reputation of the line manager is actually improving. This year’s State of the Sector report marked the first time since the survey’s beginnings that line managers haven’t topped the list of Internal Communications barriers; this year they came second to the volume of communications and the lack of time to read it all. That said, 47% of Internal Communications specialists still call out poor line manager communication skills as a main barrier to success, which is a noticeable percentage of Internal Communications specialists around the world. 

Yet, of the topics of focus for those specialists in the next 12 months, just over 20% said enhancing line manager communication was important. It’s seen as an incredible barrier, but when considering all the things to spend time and attention on, it doesn’t get a look-in.

This perennial position on the Internal Communications barriers list has given line managers a bad reputation in the industry. Co-founder of Gatehouse, Simon Wright, told HR magazine that line managers’ inability to communicate well with employees is the continuation of a trend, and that employers should be doing more to invest in the communication skills of managers: “One problem could be that line managers often get promoted because they are good at their job, and not necessarily because they are good at communicating,” he said. “All too often communication is seen as a skill they will just pick up by themselves, and they aren’t given the tools needed to become good at it.”

How Internal Communications specialists are tackling the line manager issue

Commenting on a previous version of the State of the Sector report, IC guru Rachel Miller said the rep is “highly unsurprising”. “I think one of the biggest reasons for this barrier is organizations expect line managers to communicate effectively, but don’t take time to outline what that means or offer training.”

It’s a topic Miller returns to frequently. Her #ICVoices series last year asked Internal Communications specialists around the world how IC pros can help line managers to be better communicators, and the answers said they should:

  • Create opportunities for them to practice

  • Ensure they’re clear about responsibilities

  • Support managers with processes and tools

  • Educate and upskill line managers with communications skills

  • Encourage them to be themselves to make IC messages more authentic 

  • Focus on the community

Importantly, the Internal Communications specialists who answered Miller’s call said IC pros need to mirror the behaviors they want to see in management — that they need to be role models to line managers and show what good communication looks like. They should demonstrate the power of listening, and help managers to identify with their communication role — it’s not something to be scared of, after all; it’s an important and respected role within the company. 

Jonathan Champ of Meaning Business offers three tools that can help line managers to take an IC message and make it resonate with their team:

  • “For us this means…” — this phrase alone helps the line manager to be a bridge between the CEO and the front line
  • Hold the key messages script with your elbows out, rather than seizing up with your elbows in, to allow an easier communication style
  • Think before you speak, and use the COMMS framework — consider the Context of the communication and the Outcomes you’re hoping for; the Message the team needs to move towards that outcome; the most effective Method for the communication; and the Support needed to ensure outcomes are achieved 

Use technology as an enabler to overcome Internal Communications barriers

It’s important to remember that no single channel and no single message can on its own make employees integrate new information, and a range of methods should be used to ensure messaging gets through. That means teaching the line manager how to communicate better, but also looking at other ways to reach employees.  

If the issue of the line manager is not going away anytime soon, Internal Communications specialists must seek to bridge the gap. They need to find a way to get information direct to employees without relying on line managers playing a game of telephone, or on cascades to convey essential information.

This is where technology platforms can play a vital role in Internal Communications. Think of the Google Workspace intranet for a minute: employees from all walks of life, from the CEO right down to the front line and, yes, those pesky line managers too, must be on the Google Workspace (formerly G Suite) intranet because that’s where their work lives. To access any of the productivity and collaboration suites, they must first get onto the Google Workspace intranet. What opportunities are there, just waiting to be taken up by an innovative and forward-thinking Internal Communications specialist?

Imagine being able to highlight new campaigns, ask for opinions, or push employees towards certain functionalities. Even by just encouraging use of tools such as Channels or Slack, or posting from a mobile app, Internal Communications specialists are able to perform some social listening to see how messages are landing with the target audience without relying on the line manager for feedback.

A word of warning, though: make sure you use the Google Workspace intranet to complement, not replace the line manager. Those line managers may well be an Internal Communications barrier, but they’re still a go-to source of information for employees — just look at the findings from Jenni Field’s Remotely Interested research and you’ll see that remote workers view their manager as the most informative and most accurate channel through which to get organizational information. 

A barrier they may be, but they are still an important part of the company’s ecosystem. If enough Internal Communications specialists sought to embrace and complement the work of the line manager, perhaps they would start to fall down that list of Internal Communications barriers until they were seen as enablers instead.