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Cultivating Middle Managers as Change Agents

June 13, 2022 Leadership
Sarah Fister Gale headshot
By Sarah Fister Gale

Middle managers are often overlooked by organizations planning a major transformation effort. But getting their buy-in is often the key to a project’s success.

“Middle managers have the most direct connection to employees and leadership,” said Lee Merovitz, managing director and US leader of the change services practices for Deloitte. “If you want change to resonate, it has to come from leaders whose message will resonate.”

For most employees, those are the managers with whom they work every day.

Why Change Initiatives Fail

Transformation has somewhat become the new normal in business. With today's fast pace of change, companies must constantly implement new technology, target new customers, create new offerings and adapt to evolving work dynamics. All of these require change to people and processes. Unfortunately, change is often perceived negatively by employees — and that is usually because of how it is presented and managed.

“Most change initiatives are not successful because the people impacted by change are not engaged,” said Michael Sullivan, change management consultant at business consultancy RGP and a professor of change leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

Business leaders often take a top-down approach to change, dictating what change will occur and on what timeline without involving end users in any of these decisions. Managers are then left to figure out how to make it work, and that requires more than setting expectations and monitoring results. “Change isn’t just tactical, it involves a lot of emotions,” Sullivan said.

Related Article: Why Change Needs to Be Managed in the Digital Workplace

Develop Your Managers as Change Leaders

For a successful change initiative to take hold, the employees most affected by it need leaders who understand what they are going through and who can give them a sense of belonging and ownership. Unfortunately, middle managers rarely get the training, coaching or encouragement they need to lead the change management effort on the ground floor.

Most leadership development courses are only offered once someone rises from middle management’s ranks. That’s an oversight that not only puts the change effort in jeopardy, it also often sabotages outcomes and leads to failure.

“Change management and change leadership are capabilities every leader needs whether they are leading the organization, a department, a team or themselves,” Sullivan said. 

Senior executives who fail to engage middle managers in the change process shouldn't be surprised when the transformation fails, said Merovitz, who's worked with many executives who dismiss the need to involve managers in planning change initiatives, assuming they will just do what they're told when the time comes.

“That’s a mistake,” he said. “Never assume managers are on board with change.”

Related Article: Don't Let Middle Managers Block Agile Transformation

Involve Middle Managers From the Start

Smart organizations understand the power middle managers have to inspire change, and they leverage these team leaders as part of a transformation journey. That includes identifying which of them have the position and power to inspire change — and who needs additional support. Merovitz suggested starting with competency assessments to understand which managers have the cognitive, behavioral and emotional skills to thrive as change agents, then providing custom training or coaching to fill any gaps.

“Competency assessments will tell you what they need,” he said.

When change initiatives are being planned, middle managers should also have a seat at the table from the start. When they are part of these early conversations, they can help decision-makers understand how end users will be impacted by the change and what obstacles they can expect to face. That feedback will help shape the program and define the level of support and training people will need.

Then, once the change initiative begins, managers need ongoing guidance from mentors who provide messaging that aligns with the goals of the project and can help them figure out how to deal with pushback from their teams. Providing them with talking points and tools to address pushback will help the process run more smoothly.

“They set the path for change, and they are the ones who will motivate people to follow it,” Sullivan said. 

Organizations are in a constant state of change, which means leaders at all levels need training on how to lead these initiatives. That means change management should be treated as a core skill and part of the career development process, Sullivan said.

“If a company doesn’t invest in helping people develop these skills, then it will be their own fault when change efforts fail,” he said.

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