Caught in the Middle

How Middle Managers influence Internal Communication and Employee Engagement within a Public Sector Organisation. An excerpt from my CIPR Internal Communications Diploma assignment paper (2011) referenced in my blog ‘No seat required’.

1.0 Introduction

There is much research and opinion about management communication and leadership as a key influencer of employee engagement and organisational performance during change.  However, this usually breaks up managers into two distinct groups, senior managers and “others”. There has been little examination of middle managers as a distinct communications audience and influencer in organisations, particularly in the public sector.

When middle managers are the subject of research and comment there is a polarity of views about their communication and leadership ability. Some authors regard them as change “blockers” in organisations and suggest senior managers should have the strategic foresight to cut them out of the communications chain altogether. Others regard middle managers as the key to better organisational performance, because they display unique “communicative leadership” and “sensemaking” skills, recognising them as a distinct management group for development.

This research paper aims to contribute to the gap in knowledge about the influence of middle managers on internal communication (IC) and employee engagement, with particular reference to this within the public sector.

2.0 Literature Review

2.1 The Middle Management “Problem”

In a recent report “Corporate Soufflé – is the middle giving way?” (Hay Group 2007) 38% of UK directors think that middle managers are paralysing their organisations costing UK business £220bn per year. 62% of senior managers believe that middle managements lack of management and leadership skills, including communications ability, contributes towards this.

Others add to this negative view of middle managers, suggesting that they are a contributing factor to IC failure, effectively blocking the hierarchical communication chain in organisations (Smith and Mounter 2008:27). Senior managers should also have the strategic foresight and courage to leapfrog middle management when communicating with the front line and implementing change (Lukaszewski 2008:3).

However, this negative view is founded in little substance, the deficiencies of middle managers seemingly a popular stereotype (Huy 2001:73) perpetuated by myth.  The financial impact above is quantitatively compelling but fails to recognise the unique and challenging roles of middle managers exposed by in depth qualitative and quantitative research of others.

From an IC perspective, the literature demonstrates it is “tough to be a middle manager” (Adebi 2006:1) effectively “caught in the middle” with communications roles/loyalties split between upper level leaders and lower level employees (Spinks and Wells 1995:5). Adebi (2006:1) defines the middle management dilemma as “the centripetal force of senior managers, demanding seamless and unquestioning execution of organisational strategy” and “the centrifugal pressures of frontline supervisors and employees”. The specific challenges for middle managers suggest they should be treated as a distinct group in organisations for both IC and development. However, this is rarely reflected in the literature.

D’Aprix and Gay (2006:26-27) explain that to act on organisational strategy, employees must understand how it relates to their role and how they can contribute towards it. This means somehow, creating a “line of sight” between employees and business to link strategy to action (Quirke 2008:10). D’Aprix and Gay (2006:27) highlight managers communicating “key messages consistently” as a requirement to create line of sight. Others reinforce this concept of managers as important internal communicators. Quirke (2008:188) highlights the managers’ role in teasing out connections, explaining how information relates to their teams and the implications for them. Kalla (2005:309) asserts that management communication addresses the need for multilevel communications in organisations, where managers act as communication bridges between the different layers. Marques (2010:49) cites Shaffer’s (1986:17) evaluation that “the responsibility for communication is flowing toward line management”.

These typical examples from literature highlight the importance of line management communication in organisations. However, this usually breaks up managers into two distinct role groups, senior leaders/managers and “others” (D’Aprix and Gay 2006:28).This has the effect of homogenising middle managers with all employees ignoring their unique challenges, development needs and pivotal role in IC.

L’Etang’s (cited in Welch and Jackson 2007:183) criticism that “employees are too often treated as a single public”, could be extended to managers as a distinct group in organisations. Welch and Jackson (2007:185) attempt to remedy this by segmenting internal audiences against their four dimensions of IC. However, this does not help define middle managers as a unique stakeholder group because they could, conceivably, fall into any of the four dimensions.

Quirke (2008:28) anecdotally acknowledges that “middle managers must be informed to communicate”. Spinks and Wells (1995:4) go further, explaining that effective leadership communication depends on whether the leader is part of upper, middle or lower management, but do not thoroughly explain the differences.  During change, Huy (2001:76) asserts that middle managers are uniquely suited to communicating across organisations because they have good networks. Rouleau and Balogun (2007:4) enhance this perspective by offering a comprehensive assessment of middle managers as networked communicators and “sense makers” during change, concluding “they are critical mediators facilitating organisational adaptation by both shaping senior manager strategic thinking and orchestrating the deployment of senior management plans”

If effective middle managers are “networkers”, implementation of social media tools into organisations could be advantageous, creating networking opportunities that never previously existed. Bennett et al (2009:139-40) observe “social networking sites provide opportunities for both formal and informal interaction and collaboration with fellow employees which aids communication” and “being able to network and maintain contacts through life and work is one of the most crucial aspects for success”.

However, a management compromise is required.  Bennett et al (2010:146) conclude that to unlock the power of social networking tools the traditional forms of institutional power and management strategy has to shift to a more horizontal diffused network.  Li (2010:14) also suggests that social media tools demand a new type of “open leadership” defined as “having the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control while inspiring commitment from people to accomplish goals”.  Mans (2010) reflects that middle managers may lose their jobs because social media “cuts them out of every equation” removing their traditional roles. Evidently, middle managers face new challenges in already difficult roles being reshaped by social media:   

  • Improved opportunities to exploit existing networks and networking skills “creating new connections with little effort” (Lange et al 2008:3).
  • Adapting to losing control of information flow through management hierarchies, as “technology is used to bypass middle managers” (Quirke 2008:170).
  • A need to develop new management and communication skills, Schneckenberg (2009:511) and Bennett et al (2010:144) to embrace the new ways of working.

Salem (2008:341) concluded that poor interpersonal communication skills were one of the main reasons why organisations cannot change. In the current difficult economic climate the most successful companies trust and train their leaders and managers to communicate change effectively, maintaining employee engagement (Towers Watson 2010:8). Dewhirst and Fitzpatrick (2007:21) recommend training managers and outline a simple planning framework, used effectively elsewhere, which enables managers to think through the communications process. In common with much of the literature, this development research does not suggest segmenting managers to address specific needs.  Rouleau and Balogun (2007:38) remedy this, proposing that the way middle managers operate in organisations demands a rethink of their skills development to better focus on their unique behaviours and challenges.  Hay Group (2007) recommends assessing middle managers skills and abilities as a solution to improving their personal and business performance.

2.2 Middle Managements influence on IC and Employee Engagement

Research in public sector organisations has demonstrated that those with engaged employees deliver better customer service.

Towers Perrin Executive Briefing: Engagement in the Public Sector 2007 (cited in MacLeod and Clarke 2009:52) reported that 78% of highly engaged employees in the UK public sector said they could make an impact on public service delivery or customer service as against just 29% of the disengaged.

Ruck (2010:60) observes that definitions of employee engagement suggest that “IC is the underlying process that leads to a state of “engagement”, on the basis that this is a commitment towards goals and a motivation towards organisational success that entails a sense of individual wellbeing”

These aspects of “commitment” and “wellbeing” resound with a Towers Perrin (2005:1) two dimensional definition of employee engagement – the rational and emotional (Fig 1).

Extracted from Towers Perrin Report (2005) – Reconnecting with Employees – Quantifying the Value of Engaging Your Workforce

The rational dimension is dominated by understanding the connection between individual/team roles and the link back to organisational objectives – the “line of sight” highlighted by D’Aprix and Gay (2006:27).

As we have seen, the literature demonstrates that managers are a key IC channel for informing employees, particularly during change. This satisfies a fundamental need for employees to first understand change at a personal level as explained by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model (Ruck 2010:24), reframed by D’Aprix (cited in Smith and Mounter 2008:131) into a communications context. This highlights that employees need to understand things at the “I” level, before they can consider the wider “we” implications.

Middle managers, being close to the work of their teams, are best placed to answer the “I” questions. Quirke (2008:169) asserts that middle managers are in key positions within organisations to interpret information and add value, putting it into context and making the interconnections to create meaning for employees. This is particularly relevant in large public sector organisations, where mass one-way communication predominates and receipt of multiple communications from many sources may confuse employees.

The Two Step Flow model (Katz and Lazersfield 1955, cited in Ruck 2010:38-39) of mass communication is helpful in understanding how middle managers, acting as opinion leaders, could influence IC through blocking or facilitating behaviours (Fig 2.)

Figure 2. Katz and Lazersfield Two Step Flow Model

Using this model, Ruck (2010:38) highlights the importance of discussion of news with peers and line managers so that the “correct” interpretations and opinion emerges. Further, Ruck (2010:39) asserts that briefing managers in advance of any communication leads to more effective communications, “enabling employee questions to be answered and misunderstanding minimised”. This suggests that “involvement” through discussion and questioning, rather than just being “informed”, is also important for engagement. Ruck (2010:60) acknowledges this by including “involvement” as a recurring theme, emerging from engagement research.

Being involved implies that middle managers and employees should be active rather than passive stakeholders merely informed about decisions made by others. Smythe (2007:40) describes four approaches to engaging people in decision making which represent increasing levels of active involvement and responses (in brackets) from employees, which could be extrapolated to middle managers specifically:

  • Telling             (hooligans or spectators)
  • Selling             (compliant collaborators)
  • Inclusion          (willing collaborators)
  • Co-creation     (personally committed reformers)

This can be contrasted with Quirke’s (2008:11) different degrees of employee clarity and willingness. Actively involving Quirke’s “Refuseniks”, “Slow Burners” and “Unguided Missiles” using Smythe’s co-creation approach could be essential to converting not only employees, but specifically middle managers, into engaged “Hot Shots”.

These concepts could also explain how middle managers behaviour impacts on the success or failure of IC, employee engagement and change implementation. If middle managers act as “opinion makers”, this gives them considerable influence to project their beliefs and behaviours as Refuseniks, Hotshots etc. onto subordinates, effectively remaking them in their own image.

This view of middle managers as key influencer is supported by Madlock (2008:11) who found a strong relationship between leadership style and employee communication satisfaction, which in turn had a positive impact on job satisfaction.

The above concepts and findings reinforce the suggestion, made earlier, that middle managers should be treated as a unique and separate audience for IC and development. Senior leaders specifically “co-creating” with middle managers could be the key to creating a group of “personally committed reformers” performing as “Hotshots”, but what are the traits and behaviours which would define this?

2.3 Middle Managements “Communicative Leadership” behaviours and how these can be measured

Madlock (2008:13) suggests that “supervisors who are communicatively competent are likely to be perceived as leaders by their subordinates which, in turn, may result in positive employee and organisational outcomes”.  Madlock (2008:4-5) identifies “task” and “relational” dimensions to leadership and employee communication but does not describe these practices in detail, limiting descriptors to “providing structure and nurturing subordinates” and “clarification of tasks”. This does not clearly articulate what middle managers need to do to practice as effective leaders and communicators.

In a study of Communicative Leadership, Hamrefors (2010:146-148) takes this a step further, by defining four major skills of system designer, mediator, coach and influencer, in which an effective communicator must develop competence. Although a study of professional communicators, rather than managers per se, it could be argued that this skill set is applicable to all managers within an IC context. For example, mediator is described as “creating meaning, requiring skills in negotiation and persuasion” and influencer “actively changing peoples’ minds to the extent that they change reality”. These resound with Quirke’s (2008:169) idea that middle managers create meaning for employees and the concept of “opinion leaders” within the Katz and Lazersfield (1955) model.

From the perspective of middle management. Abedi (2006) sets out four critical ways that middle managers assert their role during change, some of which concur with Hamrefors (2010) ideas:

  • Communicator – making sense of leader’s communications and collecting/relaying employee feedback. (i.e. creating meaning).
  • Solicitor – soliciting employee opinion and including them in decision making.
  • Builder – building support for change through dialogue (i.e. influencing opinion).
  • Executor – performing work to achieve set goals.

These overlap with Huy’s (2001:73-78) more colourful assessment:

  • Entrepreneur – blending operations with the bigger strategic picture.
  • Therapist –using relationships to communicate directly and personally.
  • Tightrope Artist – balancing business as usual with change to avoid chaos or organisational inertia.
  • Communicator – using networks to spread the word and get people on board.

Again, these broad descriptors do not provide any real depth of understanding about how middle managers should behave in practice to display communicative leadership.

Rouleau and Balogun (2007) remedy this somewhat, by presenting a detailed assessment of how middle managers perform a “strategic sensemaking role”, to achieve organisational objectives. They reveal two specific middle management micro-practices (2007:18):

  • “performing distributed conversations” (2007:30) – the composition and diffusion of different versions of stories for the different audiences they work with daily – using the right language for each audience to create meaning and understanding.
  • “enrolling networks” (2007:31) – ability to activate networks, often by-passing formal organisational structures, building alliances and mobilising people around a change project – knowing who to contact to get things done.

These are unique communication and influencing skills which enable middle managers to link the organisations strategic goals to the way they practice in day to day working.

Whilst comprehensive, the focus of this study on just two main practices, suggests that these are the only behaviours which middle managers must demonstrate to display communicative leadership. 

In contrast, Gaines (2007:69) achieves a very detailed view of communicative leadership and management practices, identifying four functional categories:

  • Dialogue and Facilitate
  • Inspire and Motivate
  • Commit and Obligate
  • Create or Change Social Reality

These are then clearly linked (2007:76-77) to core leadership practices and examples of communicative behaviour. For example, “Dialogue and Facilitate” translates into the core leadership practices of “reporting” and “enquiring” and the communicative behaviours of “offering feedback” and “probing for understanding”. This approach is useful for understanding, holistically, what managers actually need to do to be communicative leaders, but Gaines does not go on to offer a way to observe and measure these behaviours in practice.

Nordblom and Hamrefors (2007) offer a practical methodology for measuring communicative leadership skills in a study of the development of middle managers at Volvo Group, where communicative leadership has been operationalised, using a measuring instrument. Here, the Communicative Leadership Index (CLI) has delivered significant improvements in middle management IC practice, employee satisfaction and organisational performance. Based on the précis that communicative managers create clarity in a situation, the CLI resounds with the Rouleau and Balogun (2007) viewpoint – Nordblom and Hamrefors (2007:4) also highlighting middle managers as a trusted source of information and key contributor towards making sense of it in the situation where it is used.

Consequently, the CLI examines middle managers performance in the areas of:

  • Involving co-workers in decision making.
  • Listening to co-workers.
  • Encouraging open dialogue.
  • Providing feedback.
  • Disseminating information and ideas.

These recurring themes reach back into the research and opinion of the authors and researchers examined in this review. The Volvo CLI clearly demonstrates how IC theory can be translated into practical application – to identify and raise middle managers communicative leadership ability, delivering improved employee engagement and organisational performance. 

 5.0 Conclusion and Recommendations

This research concludes that middle managers in the public sector are a positive and powerful influence on IC and employee engagement. However, to support them, the IC environment in the organisation where they work must:

  • Recognise and foster their unique management roles and communicative leadership behaviours  
  • Enable them to effectively discharge their dual communication and leadership responsibilities to both senior managers and their teams

The negative view of middle managers, rather than being founded in overt blocking behaviours on their part, appears to be more related to organisational deficiencies in adequately “involving” and “informing” middle managers.

6.0 Bibliography

Adebi, P. (2006) – It is tough to be a Middle Manager – Conduit

Bennett, J., Owens, M., Pitt, M. and Tucker, M. (2010) – Workplace impact of social networking – Property Management Vol. 28, No. 3 pp138-148 – Emerald Group Publishing Ltd

D’Aprix, R., and Gay, C. (2006) – Creating line of sight between employees and strategy – Melcrum Publishing Ltd

Dewhurst, S. and Fitzpatrick, L. (2007) – Bringing out the excellent communicator in managers, Strategic Communication Management,Vol. 11 Issue 5, pp20-23 – Melcrum Publishing Ltd

Easterby-Smith, M., Thorpe, R. and Jackson, P. (2008) – Management Research Third Edition – Sage Publications.

Gaines, K. (2007) – A Communicative Theory of Leadership Practice – Ph.D. – Antioch University, Leadership and Change

Hamrefors, S. (2010) – “Communicative leadership”, Journal of Communication Management, Vol. 14 Iss: 2, pp.141 – 152 – Emerald Group Publishing Ltd

Hay Group (2007) – Corporate Soufflé – is the middle giving way? – Hays Publishing

Huy, Q. N. – In Praise of Middle Managers, Harvard Business Review, September 2001 pp.72-79 – Harvard Business Press

Kalla, H. K. – Integrated Internal Communications: A multidisciplinary perspective – Corporate Communications an International Journal, 2005, Vol. 10 No.4, pp302-314 – Emerald Group Publishing Ltd

Lange, A., Mitchel, S., Stewart-Weeks, M. and Vila, J. (2008), – The Connected Republic and the Power of Social Networks – The Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group

Li, C. (2010) – Open Leadership: How social technology can transform the way you lead – Jossey-Bass

Lukaszewski, J. E. (2008) – The Politics of Employee Communications –

Building Community Consent – CW Bulletin – International Association of Business Communicators

MacLeod, D. and Clarke, N. (July 2009) – Engaging for Success – Enhancing Performance through Employee Engagement, A Report to Government. – Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

Madlock, P. E. (2008) – The Link between Leadership Style, Communicator Competence, and Employee Satisfaction – Journal of Business Communication 2008; 45; 61

Mans, R. (15/12/2010) – The Demise of Middle Management by Social Media – Cap Gemini Consulting Technology Blog

Marques, J. F. – Enhancing the quality of organisational communication – Journal of Communication Management, Vol. 14, No.1, pp47-58 – Emerald Group Publishing Ltd

Millar, R. & Tracey, A. (2009) – The Interview Approach in Hargie, O. & Tourish, D. (Eds.2009) – Auditing Organisational Communication – Routledge

Nordblom, C. and Hamrefors, S. (2007) – Communicative Leadership – Development of Middle Managers Communication Skills at Volvo Group – Swedish PR Association

Quirke, B. (2008). Making the Connections – Using Internal Communication to Turn Strategy into Action. Second Edition – Gower Publishing

Rouleau, L. & Balogun, J. (2007) – Exploring Middle Managers Sensemaking Role in Practice – Advanced Institute of Management Research

Ruck, K. (2010) – Exploring Internal Communication – Pearson Education Ltd

Salem, P. (2008) – The seven communication reasons organisations do not change. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, Vol. 13 No. 3 pp333-348 – Emerald Group Publishing Ltd

Saunders, M., Lewis, P. and Thornhill, A. (2007) – Research Methods for Business Students. Fourth Edition – Pearson Education Ltd

Schneckenberg, D. (2009) – Web 2.0 and the empowerment of the knowledge worker. Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 13 No. 6 pp509-520 – Emerald Group Publishing Ltd

Smith, L. & Mounter, P. (2008) – Effective Internal Communication. Second Edition – Kogan

Spinks, N. & Wells, B. (1995) “Quality communication: a key to quality leadership”, Training for Quality, Vol. 3 Issue. 2, pp.14 – 19 – Emerald Group Publishing Ltd

Smythe, J. (2007). The CEO Chief Engagement Officer – Turning Hierarchy Upside Down to Drive Performance. First Edition – Gower Publishing

Towers Perrin (2005). Reconnecting with Employees –

Quantifying the Value of Engaging Your Workforce

Towers Watson 2009/10 Communication ROI Study Report – Capitalizing on Effective Communication

Welch, M. and Jackson, P. R. (2007). Rethinking internal communication: a stakeholder approach, Corporate Communications: An International Journal, Vol. 12 No. 2, pp177-198. Emerald Group Publishing Ltd

Image by Markus Spiske from Pixabay

 © Martin Flegg and The IC Citizen 2020

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