Analysis: Managers' poor comms skills damage business

Research released this week suggests that middle managers may be the weak link in the internal comms chain. Adam Hill looks at what is being done to help this key group to perform better

Middle managers lack empathy and are unable to communicate in an engaging manner with their teams, says internal comms specialist Intercommunic 8 after a survey of 1,000 workers.

Far from advocating the sack for these persistent offenders, Intercommunic 8 director David Silver says bosses must do more to understand their difficulties.

'They get pressure from the top and cynicism from the bottom,' he says.

For example, at a building society where branch managers were expected to give a weekly, 30-minute briefing to their teams, one manager calculated that he received 19 hours worth of material each week from head office.

In this light, it is not surprising that Intercommunic 8 found people felt they lacked information that related to their careers or on how their roles contributed to a firm's overall efforts.

Vodafone Group head of internal comms Darren Briggs thinks part of the problem is that communication is a neglected skill on the way up the greasy pole.

'Our line managers probably need some coaching in this area,' he says.

'But most think they are good communicators, so doing a course is the last thing on their minds.'

Silver expands on this point: 'There is an unwritten assumption that communication is not a function, it is just an everyday skill people should have.'

And Intercommunic 8's survey also shows differences by sector. Managers in the manufacturing and services sectors are the weakest in terms of showing confidence, empathy and enthusiasm. In all areas, those in retail perform better, but are still far from perfect.

City law firm Eversheds recognises the need to improve management communications, and is training 100 of its middle managers as what it calls 'session leaders', whose job will be to run quarterly meetings with staff.

They will have an agenda covering strategic and workplace issues, which can then be kicked around by the group. As Eversheds internal comms manager Howard Krais says: 'I don't think a business can function effectively if you don't know what people are thinking.'

Essex County Council has attempted to address this in a programme called Team Exchange.

The strategic management board takes two or three key messages each month, which managers then 'cascade' down to the council's 30,000 staff and report feedback - a formalised process that works, Essex claims.

At Vodafone, Briggs's internal comms team is providing coaching for middle managers in the art of delivering a briefing. But there are pitfalls to this, as one head of comms explains. 'There is a difference between me telling you something and the two-way flow of information that is the team-briefing,' he says.

In an attempt to highlight the difference, the BBC is embarking on a training scheme for 6,000 of its middle managers over the next two years, in an attempt to turn them into 'good' communicators. This has been prompted by the Making It Happen initiative (PRWeek, 18 July) which found that 'leadership' was what staff wanted most.

BBC head of internal comms Russell Grossman says: 'The way in which the BBC conducts business is people talking and networking,

so it's essential for managers to communicate.

'Creative ideas are only going to come from and across teams. But it needs to be role-modelled - if your manager is withdrawn and not asking for your input, the chances are you're not going to give it.'

Westminster launched its own programme after discovering that, although people wanted information from their line managers, they actually got it from the intranet or emails.

It is a good illustration that, while technology eases communication across a company, this is not always more effective. Grossman says: 'There is a danger of bypassing middle managers in communicating from top to bottom. They get disenfranchised quickly and it is really easy to do it.'

Krais agrees: 'It (technology) gives senior management the chance to communicate with everyone, but managers who are missed out may say: "Why wasn't I told that first?". And they are the people who have to unpack the information, explain its relevance and make the subject come alive to people.'

And this is surely the point: none of the shortcomings highlighted in Intercommunic 8's survey would matter if middle managers were not so important to business success. As Silver says: 'No leader is able to translate a vision into what it means for people's jobs and working environments unless middle managers understand and are onside. Otherwise you see a huge gap between the vision of the board and the reality of what people think and do.'

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