Middle managers by definition are sandwiched between upper management and the teams they’re leading. They’re constantly switching between the roles of leader and follower all day long. When they’re ill-equipped and neglected, they often struggle to manage up, across and down during times of widespread organizational change. However, when you engage your middle management team effectively, they can be the linchpin of success.
Where organizational change efforts are successful, it’s largely because meticulous attention was paid to gain buy-in from middle management. What I’ll present here are some proven levers to earn groundswells of support from your middle management team (and by extension, the team members that report to them).
#1. Be ruthlessly authentic.
Commit to being open, honest and authentic as you lead your organization through change, especially when engaging with your middle managers. Proactively confront the brutal facts of reality, as Jim Collins asserts, and you can build the trust and goodwill necessary amongst your middle management team to weather the difficult times. Be transparent about problems, as your middle managers may be able to more quickly resolve them. Practice full disclosure and you might just harness the positive energy needed to push along the change process in your middle managers.
#2. Offer continual dialogue.
It is clear to me that if change occurs one person at a time, it is because of conducting one ‘fierce’ conversation at a time. (Dr. Sarah Stebbins, Forbes.com)
Continual dialogue is critical during organizational change because of the need for pivotal conversations, accountability, and collaboration. Make it a habit of engaging middle managers in productive, sustainable conversations during the course of change, and you may well tap into hidden potential. Continual dialogue serves to deepen relationships and shows your managers that you truly put them first. Your empowered middle managers, in turn, can leverage informal networks that can sustain the momentum of the change itself.
#3. Be open to feedback.
Listening well is more important than speaking well, especially during times of uncertainty and change. Feedback is valuable, as it is an opportunity to see what you may not see on your own. Have consistent and timely feedback conversations with your middle managers, asking questions and listening to the answers. Uncover opportunities through feedback, and strengthen relationships by welcoming it. Adapt your change approach by being feedback-driven and gain a much-needed perspective to ignite and sustain the change from the bottom-up.
#4. Encourage cross-collaboration.
Get your middle management team to work together and across boundaries to lead and drive change. Ask them to take note of what the successful middle managers in your organization are doing (and not doing) to get people up the adoption curve. Encourage networking with peers to get a good understanding of the intended change, because the benefits can sometimes vary from group-to-group. Promote the use of accountability partners to keep the change implementation on track and create change that lasts. Finally, encourage managers to build broad-based teams to gain access to a wider range of resources and deliver real business results.
#5. Prepare managers to lead change.
It’s fascinating to me that only 37% of organizations adequately prepare their managers to lead change, according to Prosci’s best practice research. Senior leaders need to recognize that not all managers have the skills and tools to successfully lead their teams through change, and must provide them with the learning and development opportunities to build these crucial skills. It’s imperative to define the competencies for managing change within the context of your organization and to partner with your learning and development teams to build training and performance support for your middle managers. Training on facilitating change, coaching, communication, and self-management skills are the most critical in my view. Make the training stick by building change activities into their day-to-day management tasks. Help your managers lean into their facilitator and coach roles in change through formal performance support, and turn a perceived obstacle into a great ally for change.
Ultimately, if organizations are to be successful at implementing large-scale change, the “leaders in the middle” need to be onside. Middle managers are uniquely positioned to successfully spearhead change and can fulfill their roles when they’re able to reiterate the change articulated by executives and influence their teams. Offer plenty of opportunities for open dialogue, feedback, and cross-collaboration, and don’t forget to train them in the much-needed skills to lead change and realize the benefits. Most of all, don’t let them get “stuck in the middle” of change.