Middle managers – the new agents of change

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Written by Russell Kenrick on 5 May 2016

Middle management can sometimes be seen as corporate concrete, set in its ways, and with a vested interest in the status quo. Yet the vast majority of middle managers can be instrumental in securing the success of critical change management initiatives.

Mergers, acquisitions, new products or services, relocations and redundancies remain a fact of life. Change is necessary for modern business survival, but it is rarely easy and a number of change management methods and models have been developed to help manage change in organisations.

Not all change demands a formal management approach, but change management models can help the organisation understand how people react and plan for their resulting support needs.

So why are middle managers now in the spotlight? Middle managers are best placed to manage employee reaction to change and support them on the front line. They can mitigate the element of shock, managers should prepare the ground for change and warn employees that change is likely.

These individuals will however require a high degree of emotional intelligence to support employees. Good communication and soft skills to convey their vision for the outcome of changes and to demonstrate that there is light at the end of the tunnel in the change process.

Likewise, employees are likely to reach the acceptance stage more quickly when reacting to change if they feel they have a stake in the change and have some options around changes that are planned. Middle managers’ direct interaction with employees also makes them ideal candidates to motivate their team to accept change and move on to the stage of making it work.

Proactively develop change management skills

For organisations, frameworks such as PRINCE2® for project management that address change management principles including considering the speed and appropriateness of change may be a useful starting point for building a capacity for change.

However, change management is a broader discipline than project management. The Change Management qualification from APMG-International, offers a specific insight and set of skills.

The new syllabus samples a wide range of knowledge regarding the theory and practice of change management including: understanding the human side and impact of change through individuals, change from an organisational perspective, communication and stakeholder engagement and best practices.

An organisation’s learning and development efforts may result in individual middle managers having a good understanding of best practice when it comes to change management, the issue then becomes one of knowledge transfer and creating a culture where colleagues share knowledge.

When dealing with change, people are always more complicated and need to be a priority to ensure a successful or managed outcome. Some points to consider:

  1. Assess how your middle management operates. Are these people ready to take on change management?  If not, how might you be able to better assist this layer of managers?
  2. Enable people at all levels to support those above and below them with the right skills including emotional intelligence skills. Training support such as the Change Management qualification from APMG-International can significantly reduce potential pitfalls and improve desired outcomes.
  3. Ring-fence thinking time for middle management to think about change as well as to manage it.
  4. Include change management responsibilities within the job role of middle managers and be sure to define that clearly in the job description and recruitment stages.  Surprisingly, very few, if any job descriptions include a component of change management!
  5. Aim to communicate your vision effectively, and in a clear concise way, to help people understand why change is necessary and why things cannot stay as they are. Make sure communication about change is little, often, consistent, appropriate and remember to listen more than you speak. Deal with concerns, but keep change moving forward.
  6. Reduce the learning anxiety associated with accessing the skills needed to support organisational change.

Change management is a critical time for both individuals and the organisation. By understanding where we are, who we are and communicating our goals effectively the organisation minimises risk and improves its ability to deliver the successful outcomes desired from change. 

About the author

Russell Kenrick is Managing Director at ILX.