Explainers

Getting Middle Management to Lead Change Even When They’re Not Convinced

Address underlying concerns before asking managers to lead change on their teams

You’ve been working on a change initiative for months, gone through acceptance planning in an effort to reduce your organization’s resistance to change, and rolled out the initial plan to middle managers. But what do you do if they’re less than convinced about the change they’re supposed to implement with their teams?

Middle managers are in a “make it or break it” position when it comes to modeling and ensuring success of change initiatives: they’re responsible for translating leadership directives into the day-to-day work of individual contributors. If they’re not onboard with, or simply don’t understand, the importance of an upcoming change, there’s a real risk that your plans will stall, or even hit a dead end.

Some pushback should be expected—in fact, asking questions and raising concerns can be a form of engagement. But if you’re not seeing some head nods or positive body language, or if you’re hearing rumors of cynical employees or grumblings about change, you may need to address some underlying concerns before asking managers to lead change on their teams. If you’re sensing skepticism, try these techniques:

  • Decide the baseline you need from your managers. It’s okay for managers to not love the change. You don’t need all managers, all the time, to be champions of change, and a range of reactions should be expected—as long as they’re not actively sabotaging changemaking. Figure out what minimum actions and behaviors are needed from managers in order to effectively move change forward. And don’t forget that people express themselves in different ways—naturally quiet or reserved people aren’t necessarily “disengaged,” nor should they have to suddenly become overly enthusiastic cheerleaders.
  • Explain the “why” driving the change. If you’re only telling managers what to do, but not how it impacts the larger organization, they may not understand why the change matters. Clue them in on the bigger picture and show how their work will make a difference.
  • Gain valuable input with feedback. If there’s still time to modify the change, asking for input is a powerful way to win people over while troubleshooting problems that may arise during rollout. Ask, “How will your team receive this change?” or “What potential scenarios might we encounter?” But be realistic: if there’s no meaningful way to incorporate their feedback at this point, you’ll only increase their frustration.
  • Work with managers to make the change their own. There’s a difference between delivering the message of change and internalizing and enacting change. What’s meaningful about the change to them? How do they want to present it? What questions do they expect from their team? Consider workshopping the change delivery with your managers, either with suggested speaking points, or role-playing scenarios to help them truly own the change.
  • Support their change journeys. Managers are expected to support their teams through change, but don’t forget, they’ll be going through their own change journey. Hold regular check-ins to understand how your managers are internalizing the change for themselves and how they’re leading change on their teams. Ask, “What do you need to feel supported?” and follow through on their requests.
Published April 11, 2022

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