6.3 Middle Manager Change Roles

New research suggests that middle managers are often missing in action when radical change is being pursued. However, when they are properly involved and engaged with the change initiative, the change process goes more smoothly and the outcomes are more positive. Four separate roles have been identified by researchers that middle managers fulfill in successful change initiatives, and each is discussed in the following paragraphs.

Entrepreneur. Middle managers are often more diverse than the senior executives are, and this diversity can be a source of creativity and entrepreneurship. A recent Harvard Business Review article describes this role well:

Middle managers are close to day-to-day operations, customers, and frontline employees—closer than senior managers are—so they know better than anyone where the problems are. But they are also far enough away from frontline work that they can see the big picture, which allows them to see new possibilities, both for solving problems and for encouraging growth.Huy (2001), p. 73.

So while middle managers are often viewed by senior executives as bureaucrats who constantly obstruct change, they actually are well positioned to be a source of creative entrepreneurial work, especially when it comes to bringing about change.

Communicator. Successful change requires information-rich transmission, such as face-to-face dialogue and observation of body language when discussing the change. Senior leaders simply don’t have the time or the energy to communicate one-on-one with employees or in small groups. However, this is what middle managers do on almost a daily basis. When they are properly involved and engaged with the change process (even as change recipients), communication can be improved and clarified, particularly by relying on established formal and informal networks of influence. “As they tap into their networks, middle managers use keen translation skills to communicate change initiatives throughout a work group or a company.”Huy (2001), p. 77.

Therapist. Middle managers do a host of things to make the workplace psychologically threatening or safe for an established organization. When the organization confronts change, strong emotions are stirred within employees, which can depress morale, trigger anxiety, and lead to distraction, absenteeism, turnover, depression, workplace violence, and other organizational maladies. If the middle manager is psychologically skilled and aware, many of these painful outcomes can be avoided or minimized during change initiatives. “Middle managers shoulder additional burdens during a period of profound change. Besides the already challenging daily tasks of operations and revenue generation, they provide far more hand holding, practical problem solving, and support than they usually do.”Huy (2001), p. 78. Clearly, if middle managers are involved and engaged with the change process, they are more likely to be able to fulfill this role.

Tightrope artist. Middle managers enable the organization to keep producing in the short term, while the organization positions itself for the future. They can slow down the change process when it becomes overwhelming to their unit, and they can speed it up when progress is too slow. They can obtain extra resources for their unit when necessary, and they can trim resources that are being wasted. They can support those in their unit who understand the purpose of the change but need personal support, and they can challenge those who fight the change due to self-interested behavior. In sum, successful organizational change requires attention not only to employee moral but also to the balance between change and continuity.”Huy (2001), p. 78.