Change Management

Middle Management’s Role in Change

Seventy-five percent of all change management programmes fail because of their lack of employee and management supportThat’s a frightening statistic, so what can we do to address this?  

Change processes must be embraced on all levels.  The role of middle managers today has become essential to communicating and implementing the vision of top management directly with employees. Through technological advances and leaner organisational designs, employees are often expected to do more with less with change occurring continuously. The result is a new role for middle managers. They are now charged with ensuring that the benefits of organisational change are communicated to those who implement it.

Organisations are beginning to realise that the middle manager has talents and skills that are absolutely critical to successful change in their role as change leaders.

In today’s world struggling with a pandemic, effective change has become even more difficult to realise and the importance of true team working ever more significant in a remote world. 

The “Legacy” Middle Manager

Traditionally, middle managers acted as the vital link connecting the small group of executives at the top of an organisation with the vast ranks of workers who were actually responsible for the bulk of the organisation’s output.

The nature of this legacy role was very transactional in nature: middle managers received the strategic instructions and directives conjured up by executives, then translated the strategic directives into granular tactics and, finally, transmitted those tactics to the individual contributors.

The workers then implemented those tactics, and effectively did the “work.”

The Changing Face of Change

The role that middle managers (be they project managers, programme managers, resource managers or directors of project offices) will be asked to play is changing primarily because the nature of organisational change is in itself changing. External changes affecting organisations, and internal changes initiated by organisations, were one-time, single events. As events, these changes were discrete, were easy to identify, and a beginning and an end could be reasonably established. This type of shift allowed organisations to better prepare for change, usually with a more successful outcome.

Today’s change, however, is comprised of many of these change events occurring simultaneously, and many of these change events are interdependent in nature, creating change of much greater complexity. Change now is complex and it’s widely understood that a complex environment is much more challenging to manage because the individual events cannot be separated from each other to be managed independently.

When a manager has to accomplish something, with all of the accountability but none of the authority over the resources to get the work done, the successful manager typically develops:

  • Networking skills, helping to gain access to the widest range of possible resources,
  • Influencing skills, because if you can’t compel someone to do the work, you must convince them that in doing the work, there is something in it for them,
  • Effective communication skills that clearly grab the attention of those above and below them, and
  • Alignment skills, or the ability to get people from different places to see an issue in a similar way that resonates with what’s important to them.
  • Stakeholder management skills, especially in today’s world where more and more employees work remotely.  

And, as it turns out, these talents and skills are precisely what are needed to manage and lead the kind of continuous change that organisations face every day.

Four New Roles

An increasingly significant role change is from “manager” to “leader,” or rather, from being concerned with completing tasks to being concerned for the people working on the tasks. Part of this shift from manager to leader requires an understanding of, and an appreciation for, how change affects the people doing the work. There are extrinsic and intrinsic components to any change within an organisation when considering the perspective of the workers.

  • Extrinsic: organisational change is extrinsic, externally driven, to the individual: “Here’s how the organisation needs to change, and what you have to do differently as a result of the change.”
  • Intrinsic: individual change is intrinsic, internally driven, to the individual: “Here’s what I need to change to be the best worker I can be.”

In the fundamental role as a leader of change, middle managers need to help everyone around them change the way they perceive and approach change, from an extrinsic (compelled) to an intrinsic (desired) viewpoint. In order to support this fundamental role, four role imperatives emerge as “agent provocateur”:

  1. Creating an adoption mindset,
  2. Creating an ownership and accountability mindset up and down the organisation,
  3. Realising the benefits, and
  4. Securing the Return of Investment

Deploying the New Roles

If middle managers are to be effective in their role as a change agent, they need to deploy these new roles systematically across the three key phases of organisational change. These phases are:

  • Identify phase: The organisation declares a need for a change in some aspect from a current state to a desired future organisational state,
  • Engage phase: The top-down and bottom-up dialogue, and buy-in on the need for change and targeted areas for adoption, and
  • Implement phase: The organisation agrees on the delivery of the processes and technology needed to realise the desired future state, the benefits to be realised, and the ROI (Return on Investment) in the change.

Identify Phase

  1. Creating awareness and an expectation that planning for the change should include not only the tasks for installing the new tools, processes, or systems, but also the activities for assuring the adoption of the change,
  2. Creating an expectation that ownership of the change will reside in all layers of the organisation, and not just with the executive sponsor,
  3. Creating an expectation that the organisation will be focusing on actual benefits that accrue from a change, and not just on the “to be” state desired from a change, and
  4. Alerting everyone that there will be an expectation that a change will provide both tangible and intangible returns to the organisation, and that these returns will be compared to the investments made in the change.

Engage Phase

  1. Conducting the conversations that are required to begin the adoption of the change, thus engaging people to spark the insights necessary to contribute ideas about what the change means to everyone to successfully adopt the change,
  2. As the benefits of the change become more granular and specific, establishing owners of the incremental benefits at the worker level,
  3. Creating a plan, with the active involvement of those impacted by the change, for capturing and describing the benefits/impacts of the change at the worker level once the change has been implemented, and
  4. Crafting a plan for converting the benefits realised by the change into tangible and intangible measures.

Implement Phase

  1. This is a critical phase of change for middle management leaders. Often, organisations are ready to move on from the change initiative, especially if many are occurring simultaneously. Focus on ‘adoption’ needs to be constant and can be guided by asking adoption-oriented questions such as, “It looks like implementation is proceeding appropriately. How is the adoption going?”
  2. Making sure that everyone is exhibiting ownership in the change, and not just the implementation tasks but the adoption activities as well. Obstacles encountered and successes experienced can often be gauged simply by inquiring,
  3. Asking questions about which benefits are being realised can begin to harvest the benefits of change, so a sharp eye on the documentation of the beneficial impacts of the change needs to be maintained, and
  4. Translating benefits that have been realised as a result of the change into specific metrics that show the extent of the ROI in the change.

The Future, in the Hands of Middle Managers

Middle managers now have the opportunity to play a fundamental role in the future success of organisations. Mid-level leaders are now uniquely qualified and positioned to become the platform and catalyst for enabling organisations to respond to the changes necessary for survival and success.


If you are interested in attending our Change Management courses, please go to our courses page.  We offer a 1-Day Introductory Course followed by a 2-day Advanced Course.  We also offer a course on how to improve your communication skills.   For further information on our courses and services, please visit our website or contact us.

02 November 2020 

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