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Stuck in the middle: middle managers and change

Dealing with change in organisations is well recognised as a significant and ongoing issue. Change comes in many forms – from re-organisations, through all sorts of adaptations resulting from contextual and environmental pressures, as well as changes arising from opportunities that organisations identify.

Dealing with change is hardly a new problem. Over the last few decades many solutions, tools, techniques and responses to change have been proposed. These have had varying levels of success. One thing that is certain is that there is not a silver bullet for change.

A common feature of change situations is that middle management is perceived to be a major part of the change problem. Now “middle management” is one of those vague terms which can be applied to various groups within an organisation. When used, the term “middle management” usually refers to a group that does not include the user, and it is often accompanied by a somewhat disparaging tone. Middle managers are someone else, who gets in the way, does not have a vision and protects their turf. There is even occasionally an underlying assumption that the concept of middle management is based on an old fashioned paradigm of organisational hierarchy that is disappearing.

I take a different perspective. I propose that middle managers are essential to successful change and they have one of the hardest challenges of any group within an organisation when it comes to dealing with change. I also propose that this challenge is not often fully recognised and middle managers are not adequately prepared for change. 

I wrote this article with several audiences in mind. Firstly, senior managers and executives responsible for change on how they may better utilise the valuable resource that is their middle management community. Secondly, for anyone interested in the reality of the role of middle managers or delivering change in organisations. Finally, I hope this will be read by middle managers. Part of this hope is that this will resonate and help them recognise the challenges they face and to prepare for them.

Positioning middle management

I will start by painting a simplistic picture of an organisation. I do this to put some boundaries around our nebulous term “middle management”. My picture may be too simplistic for many purposes, but it has a sufficient correspondence to reality to support my argument. I do not claim every organisation fits this model. The model can be fairly accused of being old fashioned, but reality lags some of the bolder visions of future organisational structures and I believe it represents the situation for lots of organisations.

My simple picture portrays the organisation as a hierarchy with 3 levels. It’s the sort of structure that has typically been labelled the organisational pyramid. This is a pyramid in a very simple form. Let’s look at the structure of this pyramid. 

At the top of this pyramid are the most senior managers in the organisation. We can typify this group as the people who determine the organisation’s strategy, who control access to resources to implement that strategy, make decisions and delegate authority to others. Such a group may be called the executive, the senior management or the leadership team.

At the bottom of the pyramid are a group of skilled employees. They do the day-to-day work that keeps the organisation operating and achieving its goals and strategies. These employees may be titled staff, workers, the workforce, employees, associates, colleagues, partners or any of a myriad of more or less euphemistic terms.

In between these two groups sit the middle managers. There are a whole variety of reasons for having middle managers. They break the span of control of senior managers up into manageable units. They bring professional expertise to support the goals and advise the senior management and so on. In this article I focus on middle managers in the role of line managers of a team. For larger organisations middle managers may be anything from team leaders through to departmental heads. (This latter title nicely encapsulates the ambiguity around middle managers. Departmental heads commonly position themselves as senior managers, but are usually senior middle managers).

Change

The subject of this article is change. An important consideration is how each of the layers in the pyramid define, are impacted by, respond to and adopt changes. 

The group at the top of the pyramid may be personally impacted by change, but on typical basis they are the agenda setters, the ones deciding which significant changes to execute. In the ideal world this group is concerned with what is best for the enterprise as a whole. (In reality, this group can be riven by personal interest).

At the other end of the pyramid are the skilled employees. Usually they have little or no say over which changes are prioritised, but they are impacted by them. Sometimes the change is beneficial to this group – more roles, training and skills development etc. Sometimes the change is benign or neutral – such as shuffling of departmental heads or new product launches. Sometimes it is troublesome or difficult - new office locations and changes to working hours. Occasionally, it is downright bad news - such as job losses. (What often makes managing change so interesting is that complex changes may combine all of these features for different individuals in the organisation simultaneously). 

Many employees are concerned about the impact of changes on an enterprise, but typically key concerns will be how it impacts them personally and the teams in which they work. 

Because of the challenges that arise in these situations, and based on the experience of past changes, the discipline of change management has developed. Depending on who you talk to, you will get different definitions of the role of and tools of change management. But in simple terms change management seeks to help change initiatives succeed by leveraging those aspects of an organisation that will help change and by mitigating those aspects which hinder it. Change management requires thinking holistically about how to achieve sustained change.

The middle management challenge

Where does this leave the middle managers? As their name suggests - in the middle. Middle managers must look at change from multiple perspectives. They are often as personally impacted by a change as any other employee. Yet at the same time they are representatives of the enterprise and are expected to fly the flag for the change within their teams. Middle managers are also part of their team and are impacted by the way a change affects the workings of the team. 

Middle managers have to work with change at 4 levels: the enterprise’s needs, the team’s needs, supporting individuals in their team and as individual themselves. This creates a huge tension for middle managers who are trying to balance personal concerns, team issues and enterprise requirements which often pull in different directions.

This challenge for middle managers is often exacerbated by simplistic applications of change management combined with some stereotypical views of middle managers. The simplistic application of change management focuses on those in power (the top of the pyramid) and the masses (the skilled employees). It may forget middle managers as a valid stakeholder group. Even if they are remembered they are often such a vague and disparate group that effective stakeholder management activities can be hard to identify and execute.

In addition, any concerns or criticisms of the change raised by middle managers can be seen as part of their typical reactionary and self-serving culture. This is often unfair and usually the recipe for a failed change.

The positive role of middle managers in change

This is a shame, because middle managers have an important role to play in any change activity, which no other group can do as well. The characteristics of individual middle managers vary hugely, but in this group are often some of the longest serving managers in the organisation. They deal with all the details of daily operations. They have networks of relationships crossing organisational and process boundaries. As a result they frequently understand the working mechanics of the organisation far better than the most senior managers.

There are many positive contributions that such middle managers can bring to change initiatives. I want to highlight 5 which I think are particularly important:

  1. Knowledge: middle managers bring a wealth of detailed knowledge about the practical workings of an organisation. Unless change is deliberately designed to disrupt and completely replace current operations, (a highly risky strategy, but occasionally necessary), this knowledge is essential for change to be successful.
  2. Change design: a change concept identified by even the most visionary of leaders often needs hardening, tweaking and adapting for the reality of day-to-day life in and the working mechanics of an organisation. The best people to do this are often a combination of skilled employees and middle managers
  3. Translation: change visions can be rather generic, and to engage teams of skilled employees often need to be translated into a language and concepts that are more meaningful to specific teams. Middle managers are often the only people who can do this.
  4. Execution: the execution of change does not happen in the board room or during executive presentations. It happens in the details of actions, attitudes and choices of the people across an organisation. For change to succeed needs people with time to dedicate to the pursuing the change and an understanding of the real work and interactions of the organisation. Again, this points to middle managers working with skilled employees.
  5. Sustaining change: there are countless examples of seemingly successful changes which a year or two later have disappeared. This is because insufficient thought or effort has been put into sustaining the change. This is a complex topic with many aspects, but a key part is ongoing day-to-day reinforcement of change by local line managers.

I am not suggesting a completely naive acceptance of everything every middle manager says. They are human and are subject to their own biases and interests. They may not understand the wider context that some of the senior management do, (although if they do not, this is arguably a failure of senior management to explain it). In the face of change, they may be complacent and may be protecting their personal role or their team ahead of the wider enterprise needs. But it should not be the default assumption that this is how they respond to change.

Leveraging the middle management community

So what do I propose as a better way of dealing with middle managers? 

There are a large number of things that can be done, and many of the most beneficial activities will be context specific. But in general terms, I want end by suggesting 6 things for executives and those leading major change initiatives to consider. The aim of these points is to leverage the middle management community to support change rather than seeing them as a barrier in the way. 

  1. Approach: middle managers as a valuable community to be leveraged to drive change.
  2. Recognise: recognise the validity of middle management concerns. Over the past few decades middle managers often have been the losers and so will not always automatically jump with joy when change is proposed. That does not mean they will block it.
  3. Listen and learn:  when they push back. Yes it may be self interest, but it may also be the wisdom of experience. Take the time to listen to what they say and explore whether it is the former or latter. If it is the latter, adapt your change strategy to account for it. If you keep doing this, you will find that this community will think about change and make constructive suggestions - sometimes ones that are not in their personal interests.
  4. Recognise the pressure: senior managers often fail to recognise that it is usually the middle management community who are under the most pressure in change situations. Simply acknowledging this can go a long way.
  5. Manage their expectations and prepare them: change is rarely smooth or easy, and certainly significant change never goes exactly to plan. Don’t surprise middle managers with significant change and just expect them to get on with it. They are an important community to engage, excite and motivate to deliver the change. And this engagement must reflect that they have multiple perspectives to consider: individual, team and enterprise.
  6. Give them the tools: if anyone needs change management training it is the middle management community. They are going to be doing and living the change and are key to sustaining it. This might be formal training, some coaching or a little support. But if you assume middle managers can just do it, don’t be surprised if your change journey is very painful and slow. Of course, over time they will learn about change management on the job, but this is ad-hoc and inconsistent
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