3 ways to empower middle managers to communicate change

Give them highlights, templates and key points—not a generic script. Instead of dictating impersonal data, try to facilitate meaningful, personalized dialogue.

Middle managers are often the most crucial cogs of communicating change.

Employees trust them (hopefully), they’re excellent role models for change adoption, and they’re already talking with employees regularly. When change is afoot, hearing the details from a respected manager is infinitely better than receiving an impersonal executive video or email from HR.

When a change initiative arises, communicators often equip middle managers with a toolkit consisting of email scripts, slides, FAQs or flyers—anything a manager might need to spread the word. Manager toolkits are great; they remove the guesswork from change communication. It’s hard to get a message wrong when you’re looking directly at it.

However, toolkits can backfire. Managers—many of whom are not natural communicators and most of whom are busy and overworked—often just pass the materials along to their teams. If managers simply forward the email templates or read the talking points verbatim, there is plenty of room for misinterpretation.

This is where middle managers can shine. Leaders know what makes their teams tick, and they can apply context to messages.

Anyone can read a memo sent from corporate headquarters, but a savvy middle manager can interpret a message for his or her team, apply it to the daily work at hand, then hold the team accountable for implementing the changes.

Here are three tips to help communicators avoid a toolkit disaster:

1. Provide a simple framework to help managers translate corporate change messages for their teams.

This doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Provide a basic grid that lists high-level elements of a change and then encourages managers to apply each element to his or her team. Encourage managers to experiment with different communication methods to see which approaches are most effective.

2. Provide a presentation template that managers can adapt for their team/function.

Avoid the temptation to give managers a comprehensive slide deck that explains every nuance of a change. The incentive to forward it along and avoid tough discussions may be too great.

Instead, provide a more basic template that includes high-level change messages, along with empty text boxes to prompt personalization. This forces managers to think through the implications that corporate changes will have on their teams, which should also help spur a more productive, open dialogue.

3. Provide key messages and be clear about their intended use.

If you provide talking points, add a highlighted note that reads, “Not for distribution via print or email.” If you provide a memo, include a watermark alerting readers that the piece is “for internal use only.” Be crystal clear about what you expect, and managers will be more likely to follow your direction.

Toolkits should be a springboard for further conversation—not a generic script. Develop communication toolkits in a way that encourages managers to speak with their teams and provide context around changes. Let them fill in the blanks and flesh out what the changes might mean for their specific team.

Managers are already talking with employees. Equip and empower them to become effective, respected, transparent leaders and communicators. Give them a head start, but avoid micromanaging the communications process for them.

Gene Nichols is a managing partner of Lean Out Communications.


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