Are middle managers seen unfairly during business change?

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Middle managers often get a bad press but those of us working in business change know that they can be a big asset if involved and engaged the right way at the right time.

I was working with a client last week where the business is going through a large programme of organisational change.

One of the “middle managers” there deliberately made his own job redundant in order to better facilitate change in the business.

middle managers

This got me thinking:  This may only be one example, but why do we think of “Middle Managers” as blockers for change?  And was my experience a unique example or are middle managers unfairly maligned when it comes to the ability to change?

The very term “middle management” can evoke an image of someone reluctant to change, however numerous studies have shown this to not be the case.

Quy Nguyen Huy in his article in the Harvard Business Review back in 2001 discusses that middle managers have valuable entrepreneurial ideas, can leverage informal networks effectively, can stay attuned to employees emotional needs and manage the tension between continuity and change.

Thinking to my own experience, there is no doubt that middle managers shape key decisions, act as intermediaries between the front line and top team, and champion innovation and change.  Conversely, I can think of many examples where middle managers who are not engaged were poisonous for the adoption of change.

So if they’re so important, how do we equip middle managers for change?

At Afiniti, we get people ready for change by knowing them, involving them early, preparing them and delivering to them.  These levers are important for middle management too, but we mustn’t forget that as drivers for change amongst their own employees, middle managers also need to be equipped to know, involve, prepare and deliver to their employees.  They are both change recipients and change implementers.

This means we have to involve middle management in change earlier.  The change projects that I have worked on that have been most successful ensure that middle management have the time and the resources to guide their people through the change.

I think that most middle managers want to do a good job and need to be given the operational freedom to embrace and be champions of change.  Most won’t need to go to the extreme of making their own job obsolete (he was re-employed in another capacity, by the way!), but as drivers of change there is no one better placed to innovate from within and inspire people about the future.