Why your middle management is the key to #employee engagement

May 20, 2020


Leaders need to be visible and empathetic in their communications at the moment, to maintain employee engagement. As we all continue to work remotely, a certain level of patience remains necessary, with the future of many companies being simply unpredictable. However, the crucial role of middle management in keeping employees involved is rarely highlighted. Let’s dive deeper into this topic!

Middle managers are often overlooked as a link in organizing communication with employees. This is a missed opportunity; if this crisis teaches us anything, it is that we have to work much harder to keep all employees on board. It is now becoming clear that this is also a part of reputation management and the current reality of communication managers everywhere.

Old assumptions

Too often, companies (consciously or unconsciously) base their internal communications during crises on old assumptions. They communicate top-down and hope that this will get the message across. They believe that after a video message from the CEO, employees will become enthusiastic about a merger, that we are going to work flexibly en masse, or that we will now be able to work from home efficiently, as if this has always been the case. In reality, communication is very different in practice. Top-down messages are often received only partially. While the opinions on this are usually split, employees will internally search for all missing information to create a more understandable story. This is especially true in times of uncertainty: do I keep my job, what happens to my colleagues, when do we go back to work?

Who are the real bosses?

It is particularly important to recognize these processes in times of crisis. Here, middle management plays a crucial role: to share, retrieve and process information towards higher management. This includes department managers, team leaders, department heads and more. They can really help land communication within an organization. They are often seen as the real bosses, more so than the top, the management team or c-suite. It is those managers to whom employees are the first to tell their story and whom they consult. They are people of trust.


This means that in times of crisis, middle managers should approach their teammates more often and offer them a helping hand for any uncertainties that may arise. They should discuss business decisions more often than before, encourage creative solutions for new ways of working, and also do research. What are people really concerned about? What can the organization and thus the boss facilitate them with? Working remotely and doing check-ins is more difficult, but not impossible. It is important for middle managers to conduct important rituals virtually. Celebrate birthdays or have a virtual coffee, as if it were ‘business as usual’. That has an impact.

Buddy role

Sniffing out these sentiments, ideas and solutions, is crucial for what professors Van de Loo and Winter (INSEAD) call the ‘buddy system’. This system is needed to support the c-suite during crisis. However, the c-suite does not always look through a compassionate lens at the emotions that live within the organization. This is not surprising, as the c-suite is usually less likely to share and discuss considerations with others. This makes them partly blind to the impact of their own decisions. In times of crisis, Van de Loo and Winter especially refer to supervisory directors as suitable ‘buddies’, or important and trusted advisers for executives.

Trust role

Middle managers can also be more empathetic in taking on this buddy/trust role, by offering management or executive teams a reality check. It makes sense for communication managers to recognize this role and to coach their middle managers in this regard. The middle managers now have an extra important mission to continuously retrieve, share and discuss information from the organization in order to properly manage the drivers for increasing employee engagement. This is also part of your reputation management, which is now more than ever about showing resilience and keeping all employees on board.

Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels.