Middle Managers Are Key to Making Change Happen in Your Organization

Change is now a constant reality for organizations and, as a result, middle management roles require change leadership. Typical middle managers are the ones translating organizational strategy into meaningful action and seeing key deliverables through from start to finish. They are people developers, senior project managers, and they hold responsibility for the health and performance of the day to day operations of the organization. Middle managers have a unique vantage point within every organization where strategy and functional knowledge meet. It’s not hyperbole to say they do it all. In short, investing in middle managers’ change capacity likely reflects the greatest return on investment if you’re seeking to maximize the success of your next organizational change process.

When Middle Managers Resist Change

If you have ever introduced a forthcoming change and been met with eye rolls and skepticism, you might be wondering why your middle managers are acting like the first line of The Resistance rather than your immediate allies. Why does that happen?

Reason #1: Proximity to the work.

While you’re jazzed to introduce the next big change, middle managers may be hesitant because their inbox is still full of customer escalations and stakeholder concerns from the most recent change. While senior management is touting the change as an overall success with minor bumps to their bosses, investors, and the board of directors, middle managers are not living that reality. They’re still pushing through on implementation.

Reason #2: Competing directives and priorities.

Another reason middle managers may roll their eyes at your change proposal could be because they’re experiencing competing priorities from the senior leaders of the various departments across the organization. For example, one group is focused on driving cost savings while another is focused on reducing rework. Strategies and priorities may look clear from the perspective of senior management, yet the matrices of middle managers are where these priorities not only meet, but also conflict with each other.

Reason #3: Differences of opinion.

Middle managers may also seem resistant to your change because, from their perspective, you’re investing in the wrong place. Is this change coming about because it was next on the list, or the squeakiest wheel is getting the grease? Or is it because it is going to create the most value for those you serve? Middle managers may be skeptical of any proposals and new strategic plans without first fully understanding and buying into the “why” behind the change. If your upcoming change is more like an announcement than a solicitation of support, this is likely to be an underlying cause of pushback even if they ultimately agree with the change!

Reason #4: Workload.

Most concrete of all, middle managers may roll their eyes because they know how much extra work this means for them—because nothing is coming off their plate.

Support Your Middle Managers So They Can Support Your Change Efforts

Despite their essential role in the organization, typically middle management does not receive the necessary support they need to adapt to their reality as change leaders and the managers that taught them how to manage did so in vastly different contexts. As a result, strategic initiatives fall apart, culture is compromised, and too few employees experience the management they need to grow and thrive in their increasingly dynamic work environments.

Below are a few ways senior leaders can support middle managers.

  1. Ask for their input and advice.

    Recognize the expertise and unique vantage points your middle managers have. What would you learn if you listened to their pain points before you told them about this great new change? Even though the benefits of this change may seem obvious to you, it’s vital you hear from them. As Outside Angle CEO, Sarah Silverman, has cautioned leaders, it doesn’t matter if you’re right about what needs to happen next. Leaders must be careful not to “deliver our messaging in a way that expects others to come unquestioningly along on our chosen path;” instead, it’s best to invite middle managers to collaborate on the vision and path forward together.

  2. Be clear about the “why” behind the change, from their point of view.

    They need to understand the benefits for their own buy-in number one, and also so they can clearly communicate to the team. Use what you learned in your previous conversations to talk about what this change will do for them, specifically. How will it contribute to the team’s effectiveness? How will it better serve stakeholders? How will it address their pain points?

  3. Be interested in the bad news.

    No matter how much we plan, there will always be something that doesn’t go the way we expected. Be interested in the bad news, in what’s not working. Be willing to have the hard conversations and create a culture of honesty, so that your managers don’t give you one answer and their teams another. When you take interest in the “bad” news—and make yourself available to support the resolution—you’ll not only get a more engaged team, but also a better result.

  4. Support them to support the change.

    Whether it is deprioritizing other projects so they have time and space to implement this change or investing in prerequisites (i.e., ensuring you have clean data before switching systems), if you want excellence and attention to detail, create space on their plate before adding something else.

When it comes to the symphony of change, we all sit in different seats in the orchestra pit. If your middle managers are rolling their eyes when you’re getting ready to play the next song, it’s time to go see what it sounds like from their seats.