In 20 years of working in and with organisations, one of the things I’ve found time and time again is that middle managers can make change really easy….or really hard.
I recently shared a link on LinkedIn about the language of change. This then led to an interesting discussion thread with people. One person wondered if this would make middle managers and team supervisors scapegoats for when change ‘goes wrong’. My reply is what inspired me to write today’s post. Essentially, I said that middle managers and team supervisors can only be as ‘good at change’ if they are given the skills, information, time and space to help ease the progress of change.
If managers are given information at the last-minute then it’s little wonder that they may struggle to get their teams on board. They’ve not even had a chance to get their brains around it themselves!
It’s like that scene in the film Jerry Maguire. No, not “Show me the MONEY!” and not the one with the cute little kid talking about bees smelling fear. The scene I’m talking about is when Tom Cruise is saying to Cuba Gooding Jr, “Help me, help you!”
Organisations and their leaders need to help middle managers help them. Here are five ways you can do that:
#1 INVOLVE MANAGERS SOONER RATHER THAN LATER
I often find when a board of directors has spent months working on whatever organisational change they think needs to happen, they then expect their management ranks to pick things up and run with them. This is because that group of directors has lived and breathed the change to the point where it has already become a reality for them. Trouble is, it isn’t. And if no-one else knows about it then patience is needed.
You may not have time for patience. For example, you might be under intense pressure to make large financial savings, or launch a new service. If this is the case and you need to move at pace, then it’s a good idea to involve your middle managers in the thinking and ideas stage. As Jason Jennings and Laurence Houghton say in their book It’s not the BIG that eat the SMALL…It’s the FAST that eat the SLOW ,
“Most companies are filled with people who have no clue of the big picture – what the organization is really trying to accomplish – and because they don’t feel that they or their contributions are important, they do their job… and nothing more”
Involving people early can help them feel a sense of responsibility for what comes next, as well as helping them to be clear about the rationale. This will help your managers when they talk to their teams about changes that will happen. This post by Liz Kislik, for Harvard Business Review, gives some helpful advice on how managers can tell their teams that change is happening.
#2 AGREE THE ‘RULES OF THE GAME’
My particular favourite and yet it’s something I don’t see enough, if any, time devoted to. This is about senior leaders and middle managers coming together and agreeing how they will work together during the change programme.
There’s a sentence in the book The small B!G which neatly encapsulates the benefits of this,
“When it comes to encouraging co-operation and participation, focusing on shared identities becomes important”
Examples of ‘rules’ that others have come up with include:
- The board will send managers a weekly update on decisions affecting the change every Thursday.
- The wider management team, senior leaders and middle managers, will meet once a month for one hour to find out what’s worked, what hasn’t and to help each other overcome any difficulties.
- If we don’t initially agree with an idea then first we show respect to the person for coming up with the idea; second, we take some time to think about how we could make it work.
- No surprises! If there is any new and unexpected information or changes, the board will ensure that managers know first.
Spending a bit of time upfront to develop ways of working together so that everyone can add value could just save you time in the long run. And if you want some inspiration, it’s worth checking out this article about Google’s change rules.
#3 SHARE INFORMATION QUICKLY AND IN DIFFERENT WAYS
In their research on the impact of change on employee wellbeing, Brian Harney and colleagues found that consultation was a powerful antidote. They make the point,
“…information sharing and involvement facilitate sense-making, reduce employee uncertainty and, critically, reduce employee cynicism of change”
In order for team managers to do a great job at facilitating meaningful consultation with staff, senior leaders need to ensure that managers have all the information at their disposal.
Key is not to have a reliance on email. Think about it. Most managers I work with are getting on average 100 emails per day. This means there’s a real danger that latest email update on organisational change is going to get lost in the email abyss. Here are some effective ways some organisations have kept the information pipeline flowing:
- Setting up a dedicated, secure intranet site for managers with information, tools and help;
- Fortnightly web-chat between the chief executive and managers;
- Weekly vlog (video blog) by the director leading a major transformation programme; and
- A closed Yammer group for managers where updates are shared and questions can be answered – which all managers can see.
These aren’t exhaustive but hopefully provide you with some inspiration for your own organisation.
#4 GIVE MANAGERS TIME, SPACE AND SUPPORT TO WORK THINGS OUT
In organisations where managers are struggling with workload, demands on their time and constant interruptions, giving some space to step back and reflect could make the difference. Monica Worline and Jane Dutton summarise this best in their book Awakening compassion at work
“Frequent changes place a greater demand on management’s cognitive resources evaluating the potential of information overload and ineffective decision making, which can lead to negative effect on a firm’s performance”
In a Harvard study researchers asked volunteers to take time to pause and reflect while trying to tackle a problem. They found people were better at the task after being asked to take some time to reflect on which strategies were working for them. This was also replicated in a call centre environment, where employees who took some time to pause and reflect did 23 percent better on a post-training test.
This has particular resonance when you consider the important role managers have to play in sense-making. Elijah Wee and M.Susan Taylor, in their theoretical study on continuous change, suggest that,
“…manager role in sense making is not about dictating how emergent changes should roll out, more about reframing for the rest of the organization in a way that is helpful for other parts of the organization”
Therefore, in order to help your managers help you implement change successfully, give them enough time and space to think about their next steps and also, reflect on how things have gone so far. It could also help mitigate the effects of stress during change.
In a Spanish study exploring burnout and hardiness in middle-managers, Juan-Carlos Calvo and Guadalupe Garcia found that
“…organizations that foster the structural conditions of the working environment (support, resources, information and opportunity) could have psychologically empowered middle managers, which leads to the reduction of the undesirable consequences of burnout”
Time may feel like a luxury and reflection may feel like navel gazing but as research shows us, it could make a difference to the well-being and performance of your managers during change. This, in turn, means they’re more likely to better support their staff through turbulent times.
#5 LISTEN AND RESPOND TO THEIR FEEDBACK
No one individual nor indeed, a board of half-a-dozen directors has all the answers. Keeping things in a closed loop also opens your leadership team to the dangers of group think. In their study, Elijah Wee and M.Susan Taylor found that,
“When a top management team is equipped with new knowledge and information it makes better strategic decisions regarding innovation and firm growth”
If you’ve tried the first four suggestions then you’ll have created the foundations for healthy debate and constructive feedback. Thomas Cummings and Christopher Worley talk about learning organisations in their book Organization Development and Change. They outline five factors that enable organisational learning which go to the very heart of creating an environment where leadership, systems, processes and policies all support feedback and learning.
And the blood that flows through these arteries and pumps the heart? Trust.
Jesse Lynn Stoner wrote a great post about the Trust-Feedback loop that provides a helpful blueprint.
And remember, it can take time, thought and courage to give senior leadership feedback during change. Particularly when a manager might be saying something that goes against the status quo but nonetheless, could prevent a major mistake being made. Taking the time to thoughtfully and respectfully acknowledge the feedback can help build trust and a sense of cooperation.
Let me know if you found this post helpful. What further advice would you give to organisational leaders looking to empower and enable their managers to deliver change?
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