A New Model for Employee Communication, Part 16: Engaging Managers

Posted on December 27, 2017 9:09 am by | Internal | A Model for Employee Communication

A New Model for Employee Communication, Part 16: Engaging Managers

This is the latest installment in a series of posts exploring a new model of employee communication, one designed to deliver measurable results that demonstrate the impact on the organization in ways that matter to leaders.

Revised Employee Communication Model

The series:
Part 1: Introduction Part 9: Vision/Mission
Part 2: Overview Part 10: Values
Part 3: Alignment Part 11: Practices
Part 4: Listening Part 12: People
Part 5: Consultation Part 13: People
Part 6: Branding Part 14: Engagement
Part 7: Channels Part 15: The Strategic Narrative
Part 8: Culture

The four overlapping circles at the center of the model represent the best opportunities for employee communication to affect an organization on a day-to-day basis. This post explores the second enabler of employee engagement engaging managers.

The Engagement CircleManagers are notoriously unreliable and inconsistent communicators. When it comes to channels for communication, there are few over which communicators (and even leaders) have less control than managers. Yet great managers are instrumental to an organization’s success. You have probably heard the oft-repeated assertion that most people don’t quit their companies. They quit their bosses.

Some people dispute this—one CEO called it the biggest lie in HR—but a 2015 Gallup study found that half of 7,200 adults surveyed left their job “to get away from their manager.” That’s some pretty damning data right there.

Manager Struggles with CommunicationThe fact that so many people quit so many bosses only reinforces my belief that managers and supervisors generally don’t serve communication objectives well. The data supports me: According to a Harris poll, 69% of managers don’t like communicating in general. Of those, 37% are uncomfortable giving direct feedback to their reports and 20% don’t like having to be authentic when delivering the company line. Other things managers don’t like about communicating: recognizing employees’ achievements, giving clear directions, and crediting others with having good ideas.

Why managers are generally lousy communicators is fodder for a whole separate post. Let’s briefly run down some of the big reasons:

    Managers are rarely hired (or promoted) into their positions based on their awesome managerial skills. They are generally hired for their expertise in their subject areas. The fact that many (if not most) managers have not been trained to communicate with their people makes them a wild card at best when it comes to delivering relevant information consistently and serving as an effective conduit of information.
  • Programs to train managers to communicate are usually one-shot deals, making it easy for even the most enthusiastic manager to revert to old habits.
  • Even if managers are accountable for communication, it’s highly unlikely that the communication component of their evaluation accounts for anywhere near as much as, say, revenue generation, production quotas, or productivity numbers. You would be hard-pressed to find a manager willing to sacrifice 75% of his evaluation score in order to perform well on the 5% that communication accounts for.
  • Managers have varying communication styles. Some prefer group communication, some one-on-one, and some will simply route a message to each employee rather than engage with them directly. Some won’t communicate at all if they can possibly avoid it.

Despite all this, engaging managers are one of the most important drivers of engagement. As a result, it is incumbent on employee communicators to help managers communicate effectively.

What is an “engaging manager?”

Engaging managers, according to Engage for Success, “focus their people and give them scope, treat their people as individuals, and coach and stretch their people.”

According to a report from the Institute for Employment Studies, listed the following behaviors of engaging managers:

  • Communicates, makes clear what’s expected
  • Listens, values, and involves team
  • Supportive, backs team/you up
  • Target-focused
  • Shows empathy
  • Has a clear strategic vision
  • Shows active interest in others
  • Good leadership skills
  • Respected

One of the most notorious bad bosses in the entire history of moviesConversely, the top answers to the question, “What are the behaviours of disengaged managers,” which might include one of the most notorious bad bosses in all moviedom (at right), included…

  • Lacks empathy/interest in people
  • Fails to listen and communicate
  • Self-centered
  • Doesn’t motivate or inspire
  • Blames others, doesn’t take responsibility
  • Aggressive
  • Lacks awareness
  • Doesn’t deliver

The report also found that engaging managers had spent a lot of time in their organization and were good internal networkers. (I have to wonder how many leaders consider networking skills a prerequisite for promotion into a management position.) Engaging managers learned a lot about engaging management “by observing themselves and others and adopting the positive behaviors they saw, while dropping the negative.” They tended to adopt an informal coaching style of management and didn’t shirk from difficult tasks, such as delivering bad news.

(The report is long but enlightening.)

How can communicators help?

Given the issues surfaced in the Harris poll, creating a cadre of engaging managers is the most challenging of the four enablers of engagement. It is far easier to establish a strong corporate narrative and to create channels that give employees a voice. Assuming your leadership isn’t ethics-challenged, it is even easier to ensure there is no say-do gap between the organization’s stated values and the behavior of the people at the top. (Even if you do have some leaders who are inclined to say one thing and do another, they can often be convinced of the wisdom of aligning words and deeds.

An entire group of managers, though? Over each of their individual sets of communication behaviors you have little control.

Add to this the fact that Human Resources has more to say about how managers are identified and nurtured and it’s easy to wonder just what communicators can do. However, we have already covered the communications role in building a strong culture. From where I sit, the only way to ensure your organization has a corps of consistently engaging managers is to make engaging management part of the culture.

That is, engaging management is just the way things are done around here. Disengaged managers don’t fit the culture and, eventually, leave (voluntarily or otherwise).

What’s more, the most consistently referenced characteristic of an engaged manager is communication. If communicators can’t help managers communicate, who can?

Some of the ways employee communicators can help managers manage better include the following:

Create a manager channel and keep it populated

Whether it’s a manager portal on the intranet or a manager channel on your internal communications app, maintaining a steady flow of content that will help managers do their jobs will reinforce desired behaviors.

On the intranet, a solid manager portal offers a variety of resources. Upcoming deadlines (e.g., for completing performance evaluations or submitting budgets), new training opportunities, manager-specific policies, tools (such as PowerPoint templates and recommended scripts for various situations), a manager message board or collaboration network channel, and knowledge resources to help managers manage better (broken into categories like communication, conflict resolution, and the like, with both internally generated content and links to great external material) are all useful.

Many of the communication apps available (like SocialChorus) enable companies to establish channels on any topic they like. A channel dedicated to managing could not only share announcements, deadlines, and updates, it could allow managers to communicate with each other, sharing relevant content and building a community of managing within the company that leverages the “push” nature of app updates (to which managers would opt in).


As we have discussed before, recognition is a powerful business aphrodisiac. Finding ways to shine a light on people whose behaviors exemplify the engaged manager will lead others to realize what it takes to get recognized. Feature articles, profiles, news stories about their accomplishments, brief video interviews, even memes are just some ways to spread the word about managers who are doing their bit to build engagement among their employees.

(Reward is also important, but communicators have little influence over who gets rewarded in a company.)


Some communication departments have developed training programs designed specifically to help managers communicate more effectively with their teams and ensure greater consistency in delivering messages cascading from above.

My problem with these training programs is that they tend to be one-time events, useful for a while but quickly forgotten. I remember seeing the binder for a manager training program at a big telecommunications company that won an industry award. I asked someone from the company a few years later how often it had been conducted. Just the once, as it turned out. Newly hired or promoted managers didn’t go through it and there were no refreshers or updates for existing managers. It was a program, not a process.

On the other hand, when I joined Mattel in 1984 as a manager, I was required (as were all new managers) to complete an internal training program. The Mattel Management Excellence Program was a mini Mattel-focused MBA. It lasted (if memory serves) 19 weeks, with the same cohort of managers attending a half-day class every Friday. One focused on communication. Every manager went through it, year after year. I have absolutely no idea if Mattel requires anything like it today, but the concept is sound: It creates a baseline of how managers should manage in a given culture.

Manager Aids

A manager newsletter can help improve manager communicationWhen I worked at Allergan, I introduced a newsletter called “Manager Briefing.” (This was in 1990, well before digital communication was broadly used.) We published a version anytime there was news or a change or anything about which employees might ask questions of their managers. In a couple terse paragraphs, we summarized the news (with luck, we were able to get these distributed before the news broke) and then listed all the questions employees might ask along with a suggested answer.

“Manager Briefing” was incredibly popular, according to our unscientific polling. Some managers used it to answer questions. Others circulated it to their staffs. While we were happier when managers did the former, we accepted the latter as at least some kind of manager-to-employee communication.

Today, there are easier and faster ways to distribute such information, but the basic format holds up. Make it easier for managers to communicate and they will be more inclined to do so. Other tools I have seen from an array of companies include PowerPoint presentations (with placeholder slides for managers to add localized content), talking points, and even little laminated cards that fit in shirt pockets and list the key messages and issues associated with an announcement.

Up next is a closer look at employee voice, the engagement enabler that ensures communication is two-way and that employees feel like they are active participants in the organization, not just workers doing leaders’ bidding.

The graphics for this series were created by Brian O’Mara-Croft.

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  • 1.Wow. Every company should take this model, print it out and pin it on the black board. Simply a perfect way to improve employee communication, thanks a lot for sharing!

    Fred Schrader | January 2018

  • 2.Hi Shel!
    My three year benefits strategy includes an emphasis on using more mobile smart phones, so we both share a common focus and goal.
    Yeah! When selecting vendors or a new benefits administration system, they all have to have a robust smart phone app or interface for employees to use.

    Richard Takahashi | August 2018 | Alameda

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