When discussing internal communications, line managers are often cast as the villains of the piece, information black holes where cascades go to die.
And yet the most successful internal communications strategies are those which recognise the crucial role played by line managers, actively supporting and building on their involvement.
By re-casting line managers as important stakeholders (rather than, say, anonymous extras or even obstructive hecklers), internal communicators can gain valuable sidekicks in the battle against comms catastrophes.
Mean what you say…
For organisations to have any credibility when asking line managers to prioritise and value internal communications, they need to practice what they preach. This means hiring for, recognising, developing and rewarding communication skills. This means aligning values and behaviours, and implementing clear communications strategies. And most of all, this means senior leaders committing to communication as a major part of their role and strategic focus. In their bestselling book The Leadership Pipeline, Ram Charan, Steve Drotter and Jim Noel argue that as people take on increasingly senior roles, they must increase the amount of time and attention they spend on communication.
Line managers, like all employees, can see through platitudes to what’s really prioritised in the organisation, and won’t waste time on initiatives they know aren’t backed by senior leaders.
…And say what you mean
Once an organisation has a credible position on internal communications, they need to be clear on what they mean by that, and what role they expect line managers to play.
Internal communications is often conflated with interpersonal communication. While those are undeniably important skills for line managers to have, and will serve them well in carrying out their internal comms duties, interpersonal communication skills are no substitute for internal communication strategies, channels or content. They don’t create shared visions of an organisation’s purpose. They don’t support consistent understanding of the current position. And they don’t provide a strategic framework or achievable goals.
For all those things and more, you need internal communication. And your line managers need clear guidance on what that looks like within their role.
Give them the tools to succeed
Line mangers can be valuable allies for internal communicators if we arm them with the tools they need to succeed. Start by sharing a clear and well articulated internal comms strategy, including defined responsibilities, which gets everyone quite literally on the same page. Help your line managers stay in touch with their increasingly flexible and remote teams by creating a multi-channel communications environment. Save them time by providing content they can tailor and repurpose. Support them with comms channel user guides and actionable advice on what your analytics show is and isn’t working.
Consider what they’ll need on the front line – how often are staff told to direct questions to their line managers in the first instance, only for the line managers themselves to have no additional information? If advance briefings aren’t feasible, providing campaign/issue specific FAQ documents and information resources can help line managers address initial questions. And don’t forget to get their feedback on the questions and issues they’re seeing on the ground, and build those in to your future plans.
In the longer term, if an organisation values internal communications, this should be reflected in the training and development invested in line managers. Early career mentoring and development of interpersonal skills like active listening should be complemented by specific training such as writing, presenting, and use of the specific communications tools and channels used in the organisation.
We can be heroes
Ultimately, if you want line managers to be the heroes as opposed to the villains in your internal communications, you have to pull on a cape yourself and be the hero they need you to be. Help build a supportive culture and provide them with resources they can use, and you’ll be an unbeatable dynamic duo.