Why Supervisors are your #1 Communication Priority

Dr. Gonzalo Shoobridge

“The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them - they have either lost their confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care.”  

- General Colin Powell

The content of this HR blog has been based on the book: Communicating Change - Winning Employee Support for New Business Goals (McGraw-Hill, 1994) by TJ and Sandar Larkin.

Corporate communications should have one single goal in mind: To improve organisational performance! After receiving the communication, employees should return to their jobs and perform better than they did before. If the communication changes employee behaviour for the better in a way that it aligns with the organisation’s strategic path, then the communication has been successful. Organisational communications are not working when they don’t change the way employees act and do their jobs.

The importance of organisational communications relies on restoring the balance between the needs of the organisation and those of employees. It must help establish, align and maintain credibility in the strategic direction of the organisation.

Golden rules for communications to be efficient:

  • Target firstline supervisors as privileged receivers of information.
  • Emphasise performance in the local work area/department.
  • Focus on face-to-face/one-on-one exchanges (if possible).

Communications programmes that do not concentrate on the above golden rules have greater chances of failure (Read more: Get Employee Buy-In to Build an Exceptional Culture).

Cascading information to the entire organisation

Once the organisation’s senior leadership team (CEO and functional leaders) reach a decision that will have a significant impact on the workforce, the next step is to decide how to cascade the message to the whole organisation. Choosing the exact communication strategy will depend upon the organisation and decisions could vary depending upon the size of the organisation, type of industry, geographical location, etc.

It must be clear that traditional communications which solely rely on technology (i.e. sending an email, posting messages or videos on the company intranet/social media, etc.) or on delegating the responsibility of communication to support staff will not suffice. Important corporate messages must be communicated in a more personal way, especially in a multicultural and geographically dispersed working environment.

When information is successfully shared throughout the organisation starting with senior leadership and working down to frontline employees, it drives clarity and alignment around the goals and strategic direction of the organisation (Read more: Signs your workplace is stuck in ‘Communication Limbo’).

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Biggest challenge in organisational communications

The biggest challenge in organisational communications is how to reach supervisors and frontline employees. Traditional corporate communications (i.e. email messages, intranet, videos, etc.) are good for reaching senior and middle managers but are not especially adapted to frontline employees and consequently do not change the way they act (Read more: Descending into the realms of ‘Email Saturation Hell’).

When trying to reach and engage frontline employees, most of the time communications come from the wrong source (senior leadership instead of firstline supervisors) and using the wrong method (not using face to face) and carrying the wrong message (corporate instead of contextualised local work area performance).

Establishing a direct link between senior leadership and frontline employees sounds good; it implies intimacy, familiarity, trust, respect, openness, transparency, breaking down bureaucracy, getting things done in a quicker fashion. Most organisations do this and although it sounds like a good approach, I am afraid it may not be the best idea.

Direct communications between frontline employees with senior leadership weakens the relationship of supervisors with their direct reports. If senior leaders do act on frontline employees’ demands, then the relationship of firstline supervisors and their direct reports is weakened - why should they talk to their supervisors when they can talk directly to the CEO?

Yet in the eyes of frontline employees, direct top-down communication is just a symbolic gesture of senior leadership that generates expectations and weakens mutual trust. Employees cannot expect the CEO to have a kind of one-on-one relationship with them all the time. They understand senior leadership have other priorities and cannot be expected to attend all sorts of frontline employees’ demands, so disappointment and disillusionment sets in. This relationship just generates more unanswered questions, frustration and uncertainty (Read more: Creating a culture of ‘Respect and Trust’).

Don’t trickle down key information through middle management

Firstline supervisors are crucial for achieving effective communications with frontline employees. For important messages there needs to be a direct link from (or between) functional leaders to supervisors. In this respect, the traditional cascading path through middle management is not effective. The cascading of information from functional leaders through senior and middle managers simply weakens the message for supervisors.

In this respect, middle management becomes a significant block in the information cascading process. Remember, information is power and middle managers know it. Middle management tends to handle communication so that it allows them to recreate and sometimes even manipulate messages in a way that enhances their own power. When it reaches frontline employees, it has less to do with the dissemination of information and more with managerial control and self-preservation.

So, when there is a major organisational change that needs to be communicated to frontline employees, solve this potential middle-management communication problem by cutting a direct communication link from functional leaders to firstline supervisors. When the change is less critical, just involving day-to-day operations, a directly link between functional leaders and supervisors is neither practical nor desirable.

Firstline supervisors in the communication cascade

The best way to reach frontline employees is through their supervisors. Communication has the best chance of changing frontline behaviour if it comes from the most credible source and that is not the CEO or functional leaders, it is the immediate supervisor. Research finds that employees prefer their supervisors as their main source of information. Around 80% of employees rank their supervisor as their most believable source of information (Communicating Change - TJ & Sandar Larkin).

There is some trust of executives among middle and senior managers. However, trust disintegrates fast as you descend towards the frontline. Most of the time among frontline employees, trust is replaced with suspicion. Research finds that only 30% of frontline employees believe what senior leadership says (Great Place to Work: UK National Survey 2018).

So, it is not the frontline employees’ direct communications with the CEO and functional leaders that matter, rather it is the direct communication with their supervisor that is paramount. Supervisors should be your number one communication priority. Elaborate, and sometimes even extravagant, top-down corporate communication programmes don’t change frontline employees’ attitudes, supervisors do!

There is no evidence that CEO communications in large organisations significantly affect frontline employee behaviour. However, increasing the power of supervisors has a positive effect on both the engagement and subsequent performance of frontline employees (Read more: Employee Engagement).

Senior leaders should interact more closely with supervisors and not be tempted to communicate directly to frontline workers. Leadership success in communicating change to frontline employees depends on their skills in communicating with supervisors.

Internal communications should not treat everybody equally. It is a mistake for senior leaders to equally communicate to frontline employees and supervisors. This is a clear failure to recognise the supervisors’ status in the organisation. It diminishes the relative power of supervisors, disengaging them and weakening their effectiveness as a force for change.

The right approach for reaching frontline employees is giving firstline supervisors what they need to adequately perform their most critical responsibility: informal one-on-one, face-to-face, verbal communications and interactions with their direct reports.

Empower your first-line supervisors

There is a serious problem if supervisors cannot answer their team’s questions about upcoming changes in their department / local work area. Let’s be clear, supervisors are not the issue here so training is not the answer. It is the internal communication flows that need fixing, not the supervisors. Senior leaders need to engage with supervisors to find out how the organisation can communicate better with them and not be tempted to tell them how to interact with their teams.

“Research respected since the 1940s suggests that frontline supervisors are critical to the success of any change effort” (T.J. & Sandar Larkin)

We need to equip supervisors to answer their teams’ questions and pressure middle-managers into seeking supervisors’ advice prior to making frontline changes. The main challenge supervisors have is not that they don’t know how to communicate, of course they do; the problem is they are too often not given anything worth communicating or are openly bypassed by senior leaders.

Ensure supervisors have something to say by allowing them to have a voice in decision making and access to privileged information. When managers share information with firstline supervisors, it’s important to give them the opportunity to ask questions, share their ideas, concerns, opinions and be allowed to make suggestions. This is the only way to gain their trust, full support and commitment, especially because they may initially not fully agree with the business decision that has been made.

Employees are inspired and want to work for a supervisor that has status within the organisation, someone who can influence decisions, who has a voice and is respected among senior leadership. Employee perceptions associated with working with an influential/powerful supervisor who communicates well indicate:

  • Increased trust in the supervisor.
  • Increased desire for communication with the supervisor.
  • Increased belief in the accuracy of information coming from the supervisor.
  • Higher levels of employee engagement and organisational commitment.
  • Improved performance.

The supervisors’ power is strengthened when they are treated as privileged senders and receivers of information. It is therefore important to discourage all direct communications from the corporate level directly to frontline employees. Employees should get relevant corporate information from their supervisor - who can properly contextualise the information for their direct reports - and not from their CEO. Senior leadership should reinforce those messages being disseminated by supervisors but by no means try to substitute their frontline communication efforts (Read more: Becoming a Great People Manager).

Use one-on-one and face-to-face communications

Most firstline supervisors feel uncomfortable at the thought of standing up in front of all their subordinates to deliver somebody else’s presentation. They prefer to communicate with their subordinates, not in groups, but one-on-one and face-to-face; it is this what they excel at.

For years organisational research has shown that face-to-face verbal communications are the most effective way to reach employees. Two-way communication between supervisors and direct reports is the main ingredient to create a culture of trust. It is this personal close interaction that generates trust between people (Read more: Creating a culture of ‘Respect and Trust’).

This is not to say that all printed, online and video materials should be abolished or are a waste. These communication methods play a valuable role in reaching senior and middle managers, and possibly a handful of keen firstline supervisors, so do keep these. But please don’t assume that, because you created all these fancy colourful promotional materials and wrote a few pretty words down on paper and posters and delivered these for frontline employees and supervisors that you have communicated. From what I know about frontline employee communications, all you have done is just spend time and money on designers and editors… shooting in the dark. Remember, very few frontline employees have the patience and stamina to read, and if the organisation is undergoing cost reductions they will even criticise these approaches for the right reasons.

Verifying communication effectiveness

Information transmission checks are a way to monitor internal communications. It is a means of calling supervisors and making sure they received and understood the message from middle managers - they need to make sure supervisors are well-equipped to effectively interact with their direct reports.

In this respect, middle managers grossly overestimate the quality of their communication; they simply think they are too good. Not one single middle manager sees themselves as the problem, the weakest link. No manager ever says: ‘I am a poor communicator’. This is the real reason nobody gets the right messages and consequently it is so difficult to implement change.

That’s why I suggest you employ a very simple pulse survey consisting of a two-part questionnaire. The first part asks supervisors and frontline employees to rate internal communications on a scale of 1 to 10 (i.e. ‘On a scale of one to ten, how satisfied are you with the quality of communication with your manager?’). The second question is a follow-up, open-ended question as to why the specific score was given (i.e. ‘What is the primary reason for your score?’).

When middle managers realise they are not as good communicators as they initially thought they were, they immediately start having a closer relationship with their direct reports:

  • Joining their supervisors for coffee / lunch.
  • Doing the rounds, checking with supervisors, asking about problems or questions.
  • Working from desks located on the shop floor rather than from their offices in the management suite.

Managers are not dumb, they know how to improve their communications with supervisors. They do not need training or manuals or communication programmes. As soon as they know their communication scores are low, they will start doing precisely what it takes to improve communications: increase face-to-face, more frequent, informal, verbal communications. They just need objective feedback and some very general guidance on the survey results (Read more: Do we really need more frequent employee surveys?).

Another way of improving upward communication effectiveness is through supervisors’ feedback reports.This is an unbiased listing of frontline employees’ dominant worries concerning change compiled by supervisors via face-to-face interviews or small focus groups. This information is compiled for senior leaders. It puts frontline employees’ concerns onto the CEO agenda and by so doing makes them a top priority among the change managers.

This is necessary because all those middle managers planning the implementation of change are all normally looking up and not down. Unfortunately, frontline employees’ concerns for middle managers are an absolute bottom priority when all eyes are up.

Final thoughts…

Supervisors are opinion leaders for frontline employees. They are the only ones who can effectively change frontline employees’ behaviours. CEOs, functional leaders and middle managers are never going to effectively change the way frontline employees act. Only good supervisors can do that.

Internal consultation is important - frontline employees need to understand that their concerns have been listened to and are being considered before any organisational changes move forward. This will help dispel rumours and prevent communication breakdowns.

Learning to cascade messages appropriately is a simple step in building a higher level of accountability and trust in any organisation. Open, transparent and well-targeted communications should become the standard in any high performing culture.

Note: The content of this HR blog has been based on the book: Communicating Change - Winning Employee Support for New Business Goals (McGraw-Hill, 1994) by TJ and Sandar Larkin.



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Dr. Gonzalo Shoobridge  is Head of Action Consultancy (Human Resources / Organisational Development Solutions) at Great Place to Work ® UK. His expertise comprises of 20+ years in diverse international business development and HR consulting experience, with an emphasis in the areas of employee engagement, M&A, cultural integration, culture diagnostic, design and implementation of culture change programmes.

Follow Dr. Gonzalo Shoobridge on LinkedIn for more articles and insights. 

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