Research has shown that employees like to hear company news from their immediate supervisors, that they trust the managers of their individual business units more than they trust senior management. That finding, reinforced by a number of studies over the past 20 years, has given rise to the so-called “cascade” approach to employee communications, with information flowing through managers with little or no communications experience.
The result has been an approach in which communications professionals at corporate headquarters produce “turnkey” communications materials, often scripting the presentations individual managers are supposed to give, providing increasingly elaborate Powerpoint presentations and other tools. Now a new study, produced by the Institute of Excellence in Employee Management Communications, challenges the wisdom of that approach.
The Institute doesn’t question the value of using managers to communication key messages, but it does ask why companies feel they need to spoon feed them the information they want shared with employees, suggesting that a more open approach—one that allows for dialogue and encourages managers to play a more active role in the process.
In the words of Institute founder Gary Grates, who also serves as the president of GCI’s employee communications unit, GCI Boxenbaum Grates, “Unfortunately, managers aren’t built to tell the story; they’re built to tell the chapters. But today, managers and employees want to understand not only what the decisions are, but also how they were made and what other options were explored.”
The study provides further evidence of a strong correlation between an open communications environment and job satisfaction. More than 90 percent of managers who felt they had the ability to offer ideas and question management decisions are also highly satisfied and engaged in their jobs. Conversely, nearly 70 percent of managers whose organizations do not foster open and candid communication report low levels of morale.
But more than that, it indicates that managers do not want to be on the receiving end of one-way communication from professional internal communicators.
“Effective two-way communication and organizational openness are the keys to addressing critical business challenges, and to keeping operational manager committed and engaged,” says Robert Berrier, president of Berrier Associates, the communications research consultancy that conducted the survey, which involved detailed telephone interviews with 393 managers from a range of companies across the U.S.
What those interviews show, according to Grates, is that managers don’t want to be instruments of communication; they also want to contribute.
“We have to start to look at these people as intelligent human beings,” says Grates. “Right now, we do all the work for them. We turn them into parrots and so it shouldn’t come as surprise that too often they don’t get engaged in the process.
“They don’t need increasingly elaborate PowerPoint presentations, they need dialog. They don’t need to be told what the management decisions are; they need to know how they can have an influence on the decision-making process. If we bring them into the process more, they are confident they can help move the business forward.”
In other words, if employees really do find their immediate supervisors more credible than some remote executive in headquarters, why are professional communicators robbing them of their credibility by forcing them to echo the words of those remote executives? The answer, historically, is that companies have been afraid to surrender the command-and-control approach to human resource management. Until communicators learn to trust managers more, says Grates, “we are part of the problem.”
The study identified several areas in which employee communicators could provide managers with better resources.
First, they can help managers “connect the dots.” According to the study, managers who are both better informed and more involved in corporate business planning, goal setting and other higher-level strategic activities exhibit higher job satisfaction and can measure their own behaviors and actions against the larger company goals. Even more telling, a company with effective two-way communications produces managers who are less likely to leave their jobs.
Second, they can eliminate the walls between layers of management. Companies with free, open and forward-looking communications about corporate goals are viewed more favorably by managers and offer them more satisfying jobs. Specifically, managers say they need more opportunities to communicate issues upward through a company, and should be encouraged, recognized and rewarded for this type of two-way communication.
Says Grates, “In order to ensure managers are fully engaged and working to support organizational priorities and goals, business leaders and communicators alike must embrace a more open organization with free-flowing, strategy-focused communication.”
To that end, the study includes a Blueprint for Action that identifies several elements necessary strengthen manager engagement, and ultimately, productivity and organizational effectiveness.
Elements of the Blueprint for Action include:
  • Equip managers to tell the story by helping them understand how decisions are made, what they mean and how they affected their analyses, relationships and priorities.
  • Bring managers to the decision-making table in order to ensure they are informed about business planning, goal setting and other strategic activities.
  • Provide relevancy – the right information, interpretation and support that operational managers need.
  • Create clarity by providing messages that are clear, concise and focused.
  • Create connections by listening to managers’ ideas, opinions and concerns, while offering guidance, support and counsel.
  • Hold managers accountable for open, strategy-focused communication by providing communications training and development courses for operational managers.
  • Make communications “real” by designing systems, conduits and approaches that improve and strengthen relationships throughout the organization.