Stuck in the Middle?  The Challenge of Change and Middle Managers

Posted by Paula Alsher on Thu, Sep 03, 2015 @ 10:32 AM

One of the key principles in the Accelerating Implementation Methodology (AIM) is, “You can expect the most resistance from those people who have the greatest vested interest in keeping things the same.”  More often than not, these people are your middle to upper level managers.  The reasoning is quite simple; Senior Middle Managers and Change ManagementManagers, Directors and VP’s were hired, and are successful at their jobs, because they fit into the organization’s current culture. So what is their motivation to change their own behavior? 

It’s actually one of the biggest paradoxes in change management.  Middle and upper level managers, the people we rely on the most to Sponsor change, including transformational change, are the people who may have the most overt and covert resistance to it.  This is especially true when the change impacts their personal political agendas! 


Middle Managers as Sponsors

Middle and upper level managers who have direct reports that are affected by the change, by definition, are Sponsors.  But remember, Sponsorship is both position and action.  There are three very specific actions every Sponsor must demonstrate to drive the adoption of change. 

  • Express - commitment to the change
  • Model - commitment to the new behaviors
  • Reinforce - the new behaviors (the behaviors “we seek to see”)

In order for implementation to be successful, Sponsors must have alignment in what they say, do, and reinforce.  In other words, good leaders will do more than “walk the talk.” What leaders say and model is important, but far less impactful than what they reinforce. We can actually build a mathematical model around Sponsorship:

  • 10% of good Sponsorship depends on what leaders say
  • 20-30% depends on what leaders model
  • 50-60% depends on what leaders reinforce

If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a million times...Sponsorship is the single most important factor in ensuring a fast and successful implementation of change. So what do you do when your middle and upper level managers, who are the reinforcing Sponsors, are the ones resisting the change?


Manage Resistance in the Middle

The first thing to remember is you will never be able to eliminate resistance. Instead, you need to manage it.   In our 20+ years of Change Management Consulting we’ve learned a few lessons when dealing with management resistance. 

  1. Treat managers as Targets first.  Change Agents should not assume that these managers are aligned with the change simply by virtue of their organizational position. In fact, no Target is more important than the Sponsors who must provide demonstrated commitment to the change. These Sponsors need to have the same two questions answered as any Target. What's this change mean to me, and what's in it for me? Once the answers to these questions have been provided, managers can begin to move from Target to Sponsor.

  2. Select Change Agents with the right relationships with each manager.  Too often Change Agents are selected because of their technical expertise rather than their interpersonal skills or relationships within the organization. You can't have a Change Agent attempt to work in an area where he or she has no trust or credibility already.  Managers need to be able to trust the Agent before they will work with them.

  3. Make certain that there are new reinforcements in place targeted to managers that align with the desired new culture.   Managers are just like everyone else-- they do something because they are reinforced for it in some way. Ask yourself: What happens to those mid to upper level managers who do the right things?  What happens to those who don't?  How often are the executives providing consequences to the behavior of their own direct reports? New "implementation specific" reinforcements need to be in place in order to get these managers to "express, model, and reinforce" their demonstrated commitment to the change.  

Middle and upper level managers must have a willingness and ability to consistently demonstrate their personal commitment to the change. 

Building a cascade of committed Sponsors down each management level within an organization is crucial for maximum acceleration. When leaders skip the management level and go straight to the Targets they make an all too common mistake that creates dangerous “Black Holes”.  During your next project, make sure to invest the extra time necessary to ensure managers are active Sponsors of the project through the entire lifecycle of the change.  If you don’t, you risk the chance of your project getting stuck in the middle. 

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Topics: Sponsorship, Leadership, Resistance to change