My fellow Northwestern Wildcat alumni David Grossman, an internal communication expert, recently shared research in his blog suggesting senior managers are the biggest roadblock to “fearless” internal communication by managers. Gaining leader understanding and support remains a big challenge for many managers who are willing and able to communicate with their teams. This research certainly confirms my own experience, where tremendous focus and energy is devoted to developing creative communication plans, introducing new or improved communication channels and/or helping managers to be better communicators…sometimes all for naught. Ultimately, politics trumps it all. If leaders aren’t on board and actively participating in the communication effort, it will likely fail.
Of course, many communication professionals are aware of this potential pitfall and take steps to avoid this executive resistance. Tactics include enlisting influential leaders as participants or ambassadors, framing programs with leader-friendly arguments like ROI and strategic benefits, or even using market (or competitor) data as motivation. But without a clear mandate, or directive, from the top leaders of the organization, some “walk the talk” evidence they are on-board, and tangible incentives and rewards for active communication, the manager cascade process will remain vulnerable to political meddling. Sometimes, managers are discouraged through subtle, symbolic actions (or lack of action) or apparently throw-away comments (“…you can check the intranet but do it on your own time”.) But I’ve also witnessed explicit warnings by leaders, telling managers that no matter what they hear from HQ, communication is a distraction and comes second to productivity.
Conversely, in one organization it took just one very clear directive from an executive to his senior team to get an ambitious manager communication program untracked and embedded in the daily work routine. And this was in a contact center environment, where time is indeed money and around-the-clock staff support is critical. Another effective approach is to use the broader workforce to drive change. Most managers can make a strong case that their employees are starved for information and rely on them as the most relevant and credible sources. They can even go to their leaders with examples of prevalent questions or rumors that require a clear, concise response. In other words, let us do what needs to be done.
The lesson here is clear: communication pros must proactively address any leadership resistance to manager communication through the planning and implementation cycle – even silent resistance – to ensure managers can participate to their full potential. Managers are probably your best communication asset, even in this age of social media.