A clear line of sight – understanding the role of the line manager

What role do line managers play when it comes to internal communication in your organisation?

How do they impact the way communication happens?

Regular readers of my All Things IC blog will recognise this topic as I write and speak about it frequently. It was also a popular episode of my Candid Comms podcast.

Only this morning I was advising a client on equipping her line managers to have quality conversations. It’s a noisy topic within the world of internal communication, and rightly so.

Today I have news of a brand new piece of research that I know you’ll love. The Line of Sight report was created by Jenni Field of Redefining Communications. It’s a useful piece of work that will help you discover what other organisations are doing and the views of line managers.

I was particularly interested to read the feedback re: lack of self-awareness and listening skills.

Tip: If you want to learn more about listening skills, check out Dr Kevin Ruck’s work in this area.

A clear line of sight – understanding the role of the line manager and their impact on internal communication
Jenni (pictured) has worked in communications since 2004 and specialises in helping teams and leaders understand how internal communication can have real influence and impact on the everyday. She helps business leaders understand how to get their teams to work better and how they can work more efficiently.

She is a Chartered practitioner, a fellow of the CIPR and qualified in internal communication. She is also an accredited facilitator and an international speaker – you’ll find her either on stage or speaking virtually about her research, how organisations can change when they understand the power of communication and more.

Jenni created The Field Model in 2019, which is the framework outlined in her book Influential Internal Communication.

I interviewed Jenni via Instagram Live recently to find out more about her book. You can watch the replay online and find her on Twitter @MrsJenniField.

I wanted to know more about her research into line managers and asked her the following questions. If you want to get involved, there’s still time, see the end of this article to access the research yourself and take part.

A clear line of sight – understanding the role of the line manager and their impact on internal communication

Rachel: What inspired you to conduct this research into the role of line managers?

Jenni: I was motivated to carry out our research into line managers after a LinkedIn post in August 2020. A question was raised about whether the role of the line manager is needed in organisations today. I argued that they are needed more than ever and offer the anchor point for many.

Over the years the role of the line manager has been viewed as a bit of a mystery. Most internal communications professionals will, at some point, have experienced line managers who present a barrier to effective communication.

I think we all need an anchor point in our organisation; something we tether to, whether it’s a person or a location, it’s about having a point of connection. With all the change and digital transformation that took place during the pandemic, the question of the role of line manager came up again and again.

I wanted to find out if they are an anchor point for individuals and – to the original point – whether we even need line managers anymore?

Line of Sight report

Rachel: What was the profile of respondents and how did you go about it?

Jenni: Following my Remotely interested? research from 2019, I teamed up with data expert Benjamin Ellis (the founder and CEO of SocialOptic) again to carry out this research. We used an online survey and shared it across our social channels. We also created a bespoke survey link for specific organisations with a large line manager population.

From a data perspective, it’s quantitative data and qualitative context with fast and visual capture of answers in SurveyOptic (a tool created by Benjamin).

There was a mixture of multiple choice and Likert questions (strongly disagree to strongly agree). We used the same approach as with the Remotely Interested? report; linking question design and enabling cross tabulation to delve into the details.


This was a global survey and we had respondents from the public and private sector as well as organisations in the UK, USA and Australia.

We covered the following themes:

  • How the line manager works
  • Their relationship across the organisation
  • The purpose of their role
  • Internal communication
  • Their capability
  • The support they have to do their job

Rachel: What were the key takeaways?

Jenni: There are 12 takeaways in the full report but the four big themes that emerged were: gaps in communication skills, matrix management impacts line manager happiness and engagement, the need to enable line manager autonomy (not just empowerment), and a requirement for the quality of content from internal communication teams to be improved.

Line of Sight report

Gaps in communication skills: there is a gap between the self-perceived communication skills of line managers and what their teams think of their communication skills. We need to expand line managers’ capability in becoming better communicators. It’s important that we support line managers to improve communication by understanding their communication style, how it impacts others and how it can improve workplace relationships.

Matrix management impacts line manager happiness: when a line manager reports into matrix management they are not as happy or as engaged as those who report to one person. There may be many reasons for this, but I encourage anyone who operates in a matrix management structure to delve into conversations and understand the impact it has.

The focus needs to be on enabling line manager autonomy, not just empowerment: naturally, most respondents from the survey manage people, however, only 50% manage a budget and only 50% manage resources. There’s little autonomy over decisions if financial and resource responsibility lies elsewhere, which affects decision-making and the ability to be truly intrinsically motivated.

The quality of the content needs to be improved: nearly half of all line managers said they rewrite communication that comes from the centre and that only 7% of the content is consistent. This does suggest that while we need to improve communication skills for line managers, we also need to be clear on the purpose for internal communication functions and ensure there is a partnership between the team and managers.

The role of the line manager doesn’t need to change, but our investment in them does.

We can’t expect people to be effective line managers without building their communication skills and investing time in relationships across the organisation. It’s a two-way street – there must be changes in all aspects of work.

Line of Sight report

Rachel: You talk a lot about taking organisations from chaos to calm – how does this apply to line managers?

Jenni: The work I do is all about getting to the root cause of chaos. It’s why I developed The Field ModelTM, which has three phases; understand, diagnose and fix.

For line managers, it’s about diagnosing the cause of the chaos for them or the team.

Is it skills based? Is there a broader team issue? Is it linked to organisational processes that impact how they work? It could be many factors, but the important thing is to take the time to identify those and then help them fix it.

Rachel: Do you think line managers are critical anchor points?

Jenni: Yes. I think people are anchor points for other people generally because we are social animals. We need community and we need hierarchy.

Google tried to remove all line managers from their organisations and swiftly put them back in. We know from our own evolution that we need a hierarchy, and we like the stability that comes with it.

During the COVID-19 pandemic when people were forced to work from different locations, the one thing that made work ‘work’ was our interactions with others.

Rachel: What are your top tips for organisations that want to improve line manager comms? How do we get the best out of them?

Jenni: We must understand what’s causing the issue in the first place. The research tells us what line managers spend their time doing and what they want to spend their time doing. Respondents said they want to spend more time on activities that will drive the organisation forward, such as improving the ways they work across the organisation.

It’s important to have open conversations and not group line managers together too much when it comes to their effectiveness.

We need to look at the purpose of the team and function and whether we’re doing everything possible to help line managers communicate effectively with their team.

How to help line managers communicate

Rachel: Were there any surprises in the findings?

Jenni: I was surprised about variety of the team sizes (from two to 20), the discrepancy between the issues they want to focus on and the ones they end up being caught up with, and the correlation between communication, listening, feedback and teams.

I think the findings that I mentioned about empowerment versus autonomy were important in terms of line management effectiveness too. There is a lot of data in the initial report and the survey is still open so I’m keen to see what else we’ll unearth in the second phase.

Rachel: How do you think internal comms professionals need to respond to these findings?

Jenni: There is always a need to review what you do with a critical eye, and I think this report will help nudge internal communication professionals to do that. We just can’t carry on doing what we’ve always done.

I hope the data helps teams explore how to make changes and ensure individuals and teams have everything they need to succeed.

Whether that is adapted team structure, changing the focus of the internal communications function, or upskilling the team – there is always a need to look at how we can improve. If things need to change, we must look at all the symptoms and influencing factors and this will always include teams and individuals.

Line of Sight report

Rachel: Do you have any other plans with the line manager research – what are the next steps?

Jenni: Yes, at the moment the research is still live. This was the first set of insights, and we are hoping to get even more responses to drill deeper into the data. We hope more line managers will complete it and if organisations have more than 200 line managers, we’re still able to provide a bespoke link and full report of the findings too.

Rachel: Do you have any future predictions about how the role of the line manager will change?

I’m hopeful that sharing this data encourages organisations to finally invest in line managers and their communication skills and gets them off the “top five barriers to internal communication” list! (If only! – Rachel).

While the report doesn’t have all the answers, I think it helps us move forward with a deeper understanding of the “why” in order to make positive changes.

Download a copy of the Line of Sight report. If you’re a line manager, you can still complete the survey. If you have over 200 line managers and would like a bespoke link, please email Jenni via info@redefiningcomms.com.

Thank you Jenni and congratulations to you and Benjamin on publishing this research, I know IC professionals will find it useful.

Further reading about line managers via the All Things IC blog:

Post author: Rachel Miller.

First published on the All ThIngs IC blog 23 June 2021.

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