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Oct 10, 2022

It’s not hyperbole to say that HR and talent management executives need to make changes right now. Whether it’s the Great Resignation, DE&I, remote working, AI, or any of the myriad issues confronting organizations right now, the chances are high that your company needs to make some changes.

I have no doubt that you’re personally pushing for big changes. But I’m also sure that there are people in your organization resisting it.

But while it’s extremely common to castigate frontline employees for fighting change, there’s ample research that suggests it’s middle managers – not those on the front line – that are the people most likely to find change loathsome.

Middle managers lacking

 In a recent Leadership IQ study, nearly two-thirds of executives said that they pursue audacious goals. This shouldn’t be too surprising, given senior leaders are generally lauded for bold gambles and risk ignominy for docileness.

What might surprise you, however, is that only 33% of managers pursue audacious goals. Meanwhile, some 37% of frontline employees say they also do.

In other words, executive and frontline employees are more likely to pursue big goals than middle managers.

Are managers caught in the middle?

We know from the more than one million takers of the leadership styles test that executives and frontline supervisors are more likely to employ a challenging and hard-driving style (a’la Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos) than are middle managers.

Middle managers – it seems – are caught in the middle. On the one hand, middle managers report to executives who idolize bold visionaries like Steve Jobs and for whom change resistance is heresy. On the other hand, middle managers spend the bulk of their time bantering with frontline employees, and the thought of jeopardizing friendly relationships with anxiety-provoking change efforts can be anathema.

The plight of middle managers is certainly understandable, yet given their influence, their buy-in to change is of paramount importance to the success of any new initiative.  

How can managers be better?

So how do you address this resistance as well as garner support from your middle managers?

Imagine that your executive team or HR department ideates a new change effort. What’s your next step? In most organizations, the change moves from the executive team to an organization-wide announcement. But when your company-wide memo goes out, to whom do frontline employees turn with their questions and concerns? Do they approach senior executives, or do they turn to their managers? In most cases, when frontline employees are concerned about a new executive initiative, they confront their manager.

Middle managers are expected to sway and influence their employees, yet, most of the time, managers don’t receive any advance notice of the forthcoming change efforts. Managers and frontline employees experience the change announcement simultaneously, but somehow only managers are expected to instantly support the change.

The solution is hopefully pretty obvious. The next time your organization is considering a new change initiative, before you launch that company-wide communication, gather your middle managers and give them an early showing. Walk them through the details of the changes, answer their questions, and equip them with answers to their employees’ likely questions and objections.

In Leadership IQ’s study on change resistance, we discovered that 24% of an employee’s belief that the company needs to change is driven by whether they understand the rationale behind those changes.

So if you’re sending your middle managers into a situation where they cannot adequately explain the rationale behind your latest initiative, your change effort risks ignominy before it even gets started.

Executives in HR and talent management can take solace in the knowledge that middle managers are often a forgotten stakeholder group when it comes to selling a new change effort (including employee retention, DE&I, working from home, and all the rest).

But often, all that’s needed is a bit of extra attention and effort cultivating buy-in from middle managers before your change effort is announced organization-wide.


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