Middle managers to drive change

What does it take to succeed in change?

shutterstock_121409479Middle managers in most organisations have a huge influence over the success of organisational change. Most middle managers are passive about change; a few step up to delivering change; all of them need to be behind the change. Some recent blogs point to how to get middle managers on the side of success in change.

Why middle managers are important in change

Middle managers communicate and implement the strategic ideas of senior managers and communicate performance and structural problems back to the senior managers. Organisations differ a lot in the autonomy and responsibility that middle managers are expected to use. In delivering change the middle managers usually have a passive role: they will support the change team with leadership behaviours and resources. For the passive managers their main role and first priority is to manage the business. Some middle managers will make up the change team; these are active in designing and delivering the change. These active managers will have the change as their first priority and be given time to do the work on change. This separation of priorities and resources is essential if both the change and the business are to succeed.

Engaging passive managers

In a recent blog article on the HBR web site Behnam Tabrizi says that getting the passive middle managers to support the change needs alignment between the values and aspirations of the managers and the change. They have to see whats in it for them! Otherwise they will take the opposite view and passively resist the change by not pushing it down the line. Change in the areas covered by such managers will be hard if not impossible to achieve. This means middle managers are key stakeholders.

To get the appropriate leadership behaviour from middle managers requires two further steps:

  1. Middle managers need to contribute to the design of change in their area, called authorship. This level of engagement leads to ownership. There will be aspects of their area of responsibility that means the change has to be tailored to be successful. These managers are in the best place to work out innovative solutions to local adoption of change.
  2. Middle managers are made responsible for the success of change in their area. Success needs its measures. The consequence of success is evident in performance reviews of the managers. This usually gets managers attention and results in delivery!

Successful Change Managers

The middle managers who set aside their day job to lead the change are also stepping outside the management hierarchy. They can not tell fellow managers what to do so they need additional leadership capability. They need all of the above (alignment, authorship and responsibility) for delivering the change.

Alignment both with the outcomes of the change and the way the change is implemented across the organisation. Authorship of both what the change is and how it is implemented across the organisation (a change team is usually cross functional). Responsibility for the organisational benefits to be achieved from the change.

According to Behnam Tabrizi in his most recent blog the additional leadership capability consists of:

  • Vision: Knowing where the organisation needs to go and having bold ideas about how to get there.
  • Process: a method for implementing the change. This enables the next steps to be worked out, communicated and implemented effectively.
  • Cross boundaries: change managers work across functional boundaries to build alliances, join up thinking, identify and manage dependencies. They must have a license to go wherever the change needs take them. This includes interceding directly with senior managers, line managers and front line staff.
  • Move fast: once action has been identified it needs to be executed as soon as possible. Nothing drives change as much as momentum.


How does your training, consulting and coaching offering target and support middle managers as a key group of stakeholders in delivering change? Do you recognise the two types of middle managers in your offerings? How are you reaching out the passive middle managers?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.