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How Can Upper and Middle Managers Get Their Message Across?

A group of people working on a computer in an office.

​The telephone game is fun when you're a kid laughing at how a message gets muddled as it's passed from person to person. It's not so funny when you're an adult dealing with muddled messages in the workplace.

But as business moves faster, communication can suffer.

So what can companies do to make sure upper and middle managers convey clear messages from level to level?

"The first medium for successful communications is relationships," said Lisa Sinclair, managing director at the Center for Creative Leadership. "Building relationships with people builds social capital. The more of that you build, the more often people will be willing to listen to you, even when they're busy."

One of the best ways to build relationships is through in-person communication. Even a few minutes of face time on a regular basis can keep important lines of communication open between upper and middle managers, Sinclair said.

But the trick is often finding time to do that. With so much emphasis on moving quickly and making short-term gains, taking even five minutes to properly communicate an idea is sometimes considered wasteful. But spending a few minutes checking in with staff members each week to build a good working relationship is worth a manager's time.

"If you're not in conversation with them now, there's no relationship in place when you really need something," said Ashley Freeman, owner of Flourishing Work LLC, which provides companies with coaching and training programs.

That face-to-face interaction is something employees actually want. A study by PwC found that 45 percent of employees preferred face-to-face interactions when communicating with colleagues, and an additional 29 percent prefer both face-to-face and digital interactions.

These personal conversations not only help upper managers understand what middle managers need, but they can also help middle managers stay in the loop on future projects. For example, if upper managers spend hours discussing a project before even discussing it with their teams, middle managers may struggle to understand and implement those plans.

"The sooner you can start engaging [your team members], giving them ideas, letting them know that you're talking about a particular topic, the more successful you'll be when you communicate to them later," Sinclair said.

Similarly, by talking to upper managers and understanding how they process and filter ideas, middle managers can get a better idea of how to craft a message that will be approved.

Another way to build communication among managers is by using technology—as long as you find the right technology for your team's needs.

When leaders at MyRoofingPal wanted to create a clear vision for the company's future, managers from all levels sat down together to come up with ideas. Those ideas included adding technology to the everyday workflow at the organization—a Web company that helps connect homeowners and home improvement contractors—to better communicate ideas and issues.

"We've tried to remove the barriers and feelings of distance by having all managers involved in the same conversation in Slack," MyRoofingPal's director of operations, Courtney Keene, explained. Slack is one of many cloud-based platforms that help employees communicate through chat channels, private messaging and file sharing.

"Obviously, middle management and upper management have separate channels for independent issues, but the go-to channel is the one that includes and solicits feedback from everyone across all management tiers," she said.

And with more and more employees working remotely, Sinclair said video technology can also be beneficial in building those important face-to-face connections when everyone is not in the same space. "Being able to see someone makes a big difference," she said.

At the Center for Creative Leadership, Sinclair and her co-workers are now using an Owl video camera for meetings that include remote workers.

"[It] moves around the room to whoever is talking, and it makes a huge difference," she said.

It's important to make sure the technology works for all levels of management. According to the PwC study, 90 percent of C-suite executives believe their company pays attention to people's needs when introducing new technology. Only 53 percent of staff surveyed agreed. Instead of simply introducing technology and expecting middle managers to adopt it, take the time to listen to what will work best for all employees.

Jenny Cohen is a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Mich. 


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