From the Comms Cupboard

Who should help managers communicate better?

Who should help managers communicate better?
Managers are often thrust into positions they're unsuited for. Whose job is it to help them handle communication better: the comms department, HR or the boss?

John + Shaun navigate the different scenarios where one department may be better than another is making life easier for a typical manager.

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Episode transcript

Shaun: I think we're going over old ground a little bit here, so I apologise, but I do like to bring up the whole management thing again because I find management fascinating.

John: Yup.

Shaun: I think management changes all the time, and new techniques and trends and things like that in management. Yet, there’s an undercurrent of a manager now being the same as a manager in 1923 😄

John: I'm not so sure about that 😆 I think they probably could have sacked you on the spot, or had your hands cut off.

Shaun: That’s very true. But I think there is that … Y’know, some of the things that remain is that managers think very highly of themselves. I know this because I've been a manager – a young one. 30 years ago, when I first got a management role, I was: “Oh I’m a manager now and people have to look up to me.” Immediately, there was that hierarchy.

John: You were visualising the Mercedes.

Shaun: I wasn't like that, but I had that subliminal something …

John: You had built your confidence a little bit.

Shaun: I think that still exists. I think nowadays more than ever, people are thrust into management positions without really understanding what it’s about. One of the reasons is businesses can't afford to give them a salary increase so they give them a title increase instead.

John: It's a lot of responsibility being a manager of somebody, isn't it?

Shaun: So much – it's somebody else’s career.

John: Emotional … their well-being. It's the thing they do the most every day and you're there to help develop them.

Shaun: Particularly now, there’s more emphasis on the empathy side of things, but yeah it is your job as manager to develop the people around you, but I don’t think that happens.

John: You get given this job and then you're thrust into something.

Shaun: You mean you get given the job as a manager?

John: Yeah, and then you're expected to not only manage people but also communicate really well and deliver tough messages, strategise, develop things, and bring your team together to perform to a high standard. It's really tough. As communicators, this is a big job.

Shaun: There’s definitely room for good communicators to be able to help those managers, but often managers need to know they need that help. I'm coming back to what a person typically does when they get a management job: they don’t want to be told by anyone else how to do their job. That's a massive obstacle for a comms department to overcome. How do I help this manager without making them feel I’m undercutting them or under …

John: I don’t know if it’s undercutting them.

Shaun: Treading on their toes?

John: You're putting your arm around them and becoming friends, and I think that’s a big role. When someone gets that, to actually get in there quick and get to know that person and understand how they tick and what they need. There will be a lot of people who reach out and want support as well – there’s still a lot of those people.

Shaun: I would hope so because I also think a manager who’s not quite ready for that management position may think: “I’m not going to reach out for help because I don’t want people to think I’m a weak manager.”

John: Absolutely. But they may grab it if you offer it!

Shaun: I think so! ⛑ So, how do comms people help? Is it a case of a comms person having to really know something thee manager knows? If a manager came to you and said: “I'm really good at spreadsheet stuff; I can handle all the numbers and the strategy of the business; I can get that sales bottom line right up there … but someone came to me the other day and said they were depressed and I didn’t know what to do.” Is the comms person allowed to know who that person is? Does the manager have to keep that to themselves, so then there’s a sort of generic help?

John: I don’t know if it’s the comms person that should be helping them with that conversation. It should probably be someone from HR who can help them with that.

Shaun: Same question though: does the HR person have the right to know who that person is?

John: Possibly. I don't think they have the right to know – I don’t think they have to share that information. I just think you have to help that person deal with it and to manage it properly. That’s a management skill. I think a communication thing is around how you have the conversation – you could help with that. Most professional communicators should be helping managers of functions, not necessarily people managers. It's not necessarily about helping them to communicate.

Shaun: I get where you're coming from, but I wonder whose job that actually is then? If a manager reaches out for help in trying to communicate with someone – it’s not their natural skill to deal with emotion, but that’s a communication skill.

John: It is. It's about teaching empathy; teaching people how to listen to people and have conversations.

Shaun: But it's no one's particular responsibility of a department?

John: I would say it’s HR. I think there’s a responsibility around that area, to help people with that softer side of skills.

Shaun: Soft skills are so undervalued. They really are. A business where soft skills are abundant is a very strong business. What about those managers who are put into positions of managing a department, but they create silos in those departments. I guess that’s a comms thing, to coerce that manager into not shutting off other departments just because you’re the manager of that one.

John: You've just got to get in there, haven't you – building a relationship and helping them understand what they get out of being a good communicator and how they’re going to get benefits from that. We’re increasingly getting to a place where people don't go out of their way to stop communication happening. I think they want it to happen. We go back to ego: it’s better to show off what you’re doing and champion it. Also, a lot about communication is because something needs to be told to people. I think what we want to get away from is people asking you at the last minute for help. You want to get people to think a little bit more about how they message things. It should be less about: “Right, we need to tell people about this thing tomorrow.” Actually, what long-term thing do we want to get from our workforce and our people? It's about thinking much broader about what they want to do.

Shaun: Do you think new managers should go through a period of training?

John: Oh god, yes! 🚨 And also given support. We’ve talked about crisis quite a lot – how to deal with big change. Give managers the messaging to help them and coach people on how to do things better. That would definitely be the job of the communications team, to be out there doing that.

Shaun: If I were a company owner and promoted someone and said I’m going to make you manager of this department, I wouldn't expect them to be a manager. I would fork out to make sure they went on every management course and learned the ropes.

John: What would be even better is if they took them and showed them how to do stuff.

Shaun: Mentoring.

John: Yes, mentored them in doing things, and be really open about the skills of that person and what they need to develop to actually become good at that job. I think it's very easy to think someone’s a manager and they can do this amazing job and manage this massive team, but they may only be able to do one or the other of those things, or neither. They must be able to do at least a portion of it or they wouldn’t have got the job!

Shaun: Well, I don’t know 🤨 I do think people are getting those jobs when they are under-skilled in lots of those areas.

John: The important thing is to find that gap and help them develop it. A lot of that is mentoring but it's also seeing … that role-model thing as well … it's really up to leadership and internal comms functions to show how good something can be and the value of doing it. This comes back to something we’ve talked about a lot, which is measurement. So, from an internal comms perspective, to show that actually we did this with this group and look at how much more impactful it was than the thing we did with you that you only told us about the day before.


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