The Ham in the Sandwich — Some Insight into the Forgotten Realm of Middle Management Communication

Why is it that, after decades of getting the same answer, employee surveys still list better communication as one of the top five on their wish list? We've listened, we've learned, we've taken giant strides in our communication techniques, we've improved. So, what have we missed?

We can find one clue in the results of those same surveys that have always shown that immediate supervisors remain among the most trusted and the most sought-after sources of information about the organization.

Another clue may be in the results of a recent study by the Management Agenda, revealing that a quarter of the managers surveyed don't trust their corporate leadership.

So, here they are, the ham in the sandwich — millions of so-called middle managers, potential sources for employee motivation and productivity — and, by and large, ignored from above and below when it comes to providing them with the information and communication skills they sorely need to meet that potential.

The consequent poor or marginal communication produces a critical obstacle to corporate credibility and trust in management. How many employee surveys do you have to read to realize that one of the top ten (most of the time top 5) improvements requested by those surveyed is consistently "better communication."? Does this mean that CCM members and their professional peers are doing a poor job? Of course not. But sometimes the emphasis is so focused on employees as a mass audience, that middle managers get lost in translation. Why not give those managers the training and tools to help them exercise the awesome power of effective small group communication?

"OK", you say. "Sounds reasonable. But, how do we do it?" First, we must realize that those team leaders, managers, and supervisors were probably not selected for their positions because of communication skills. They are technically proficient engineers, skilled analysts, and knowledgeable human resource experts, all chosen as leaders because they excel in their fields. They are bright, and motivated. And thus, our job becomes easier. Because the course corrections needed to help them become better communicators is not rocket science (unless, of course, we are training NASA communicators).

Experience with dozens of organizations in the U.S. and Canada tells us that when team leaders are guided through focused communication training of only one day's duration, their understanding of and ability to apply effective communication increases dramatically. And it all starts with "Personal Impact."

We are all familiar with the WIFFM concept (what's in it for me), which suggests that humans require a personal connection with a message before paying attention to it. For that reason, all best practice communication begins with listening and acknowledging awareness of the position or issues of others. This is why "personal impact" is the foundation of an effective communication pyramid. Team leaders can build toward personal impact which leads to effective communication if they have the tools with which to do it.

Meaningful communication will not take place if personal impact is weak or missing. When managers are trained to interpret the large corporate edicts ("we will grow our productivity by 8 percent in the next quarter") into language that has a personal impact on their team, they have taken the first step toward making it happen.

Once managers have the team's attention they can move on to sharing the information necessary to achieve the goal (Awareness). Here is where professional communicators can play a crucial role. By listening (talking with, getting to know, paying attention) to this essential link in the organizational communication process, we can supply those managers with the timely, accurate, information they so often lack.

That done, team awareness increases, and the credibility of the "immediate supervisor" is enhanced. As awareness increases from a trusted source, experience tells us that employees will give the organization the benefit of the doubt even when the news is not good. The reason is "Understanding." A company announcement that it will lay off 5 percent of the workforce in the next quarter is not happy news. But if employees understand the reasons, again, only from a trusted source, they tend to adapt a "wait and see" attitude. They are neither accepting nor rejecting the action, but they are accepting the information. And that is as far as we, as communicators, can take them. Heresy right!?

How many times have we set a communication goal that requires employees to "buy-in" to an idea or action? It's not a realistic goal for communication. Employees know when leadership is trying to sell them an idea or concept. And when we communicate for "Acceptance," we undermine the objective of "Trust and Support," which can only come from the highly visible actions of senior executives. Communicators can certainly be conduits to publicize those actions internally, but communication by itself is not enough to instill trust in corporate leadership. Acceptance of a message is something employees will reach on their own… or not. And "Trust and Support" is only achieved after management has consistently "walked the talk" over time.

Most of this should not be surprising to professional communicators. What is surprising is why so many organizations place a high priority on communication at the team leader level, yet do little or nothing to support their efforts. It has only been recently that some organizations have made "communication" a subject for performance reviews.

So, what are the first steps to achieving excellence in middle management communication? For the answer to that question I defer to my Canadian colleagues at Mindzenthy & Roberts (www.mrcom.com), with whom we have worked for several years and who created the Manager is the Medium™ training program. They give us a good start toward that answer from interviews with more than 1500 team leaders in organizations of all sizes.

The right information, at the right time, from the executive level
The middle managers interviewed noted that having accurate communication from the top enhances their credibility with their direct reports, and gives teams time to react and act on organizational initiatives.

Focused training in communication principles and practice
The managers accepted the importance of communication as a critical link in the organization's success as evidenced by the organization "walking the talk" by providing the tools and training to help them do it well.

Team acceptance of messages rose dramatically
Because the managers were well-trained, their messages were clear, understandable and in the context of the day-to-day mission of the team or department (Personal Impact).

Communication became more frequent
The managers felt more confident with their communication skills and, therefore, communicated more often, even when communicating "bad news" messages. They knew how to think strategically, how to prepare for sharing information, and how to present it most appropriately.

In sum, by executing an organizational mandate to train, equip, and empower middle managers and team leaders in the skills and techniques of effective communication, we elevate them from being the ham in an ordinary corporate sandwich to becoming the meaty fillet of change management. RKB

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