What does it take to break through the concrete middle — that layer of management where messages go in, but they don’t come out?  It’s probably not a sledge hammer.  How about some humanity, some empathy, some positive role models, some clear expectations and some investments in tools and skills development?

In my experience, managers and leaders want to do the right thing.  They want to be involved in making a difference, adding value for the customers, their company and their teammates.  If they fall short, it’s often because they’re being pulled in too many different directions, unclear on priorities or fearful of doing the wrong thing.  In the case of communications, they’re often afraid of saying the wrong thing or not having all the answers.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a series of articles about middle managers – with some real-life examples of the folks who are challenged to do more with less, feeling pressure from above and below, and facing the prospect of uncertain rewards.

One of the WSJ articles ended with the conclusion that managers will never become obsolete, “Right now, technology, nor efforts to flatten hierarchies, can compensate for a human being who can brainstorm an elegant solution to a marketing problem, explain the CEO’s cryptic vision to a team of engineers, or reassure a struggling employee.  That’s still a manager’s job.”

It’s a good thing they’re not going away, because we need the human connection and employees still prefer to learn about the company and their priorities from their direct supervisor. So, let’s work on how to make it easier and more natural for middle managers to be great communicators.  Let’s help them see their role as interpreter, motivator and relationship builder versus deliverer of information and job assignments.  It’s easiest when it starts from the top, with leaders who communicate well, involve others, let people ask questions and provide authentic, honest answers, even when they don’t have all the answers.  A combination of good role models, training and practice and rewards based on the engagement of their team can help break down the layer of concrete.

What have you noticed about middle managers who are effective, engaging communicators and leaders?