The crucial role of middle management in change efforts

Unfortunately, not all organizational change management efforts result in success. This can be for a number of reasons, including outside market factors, failure to convince teams of the need for change or even poor timing. However, author and Stanford professor Behnam Tabrizi, who was recently published in the Harvard Business Journal, has noticed a trend in those organizations that fail to steer their teams in a new direction. According to Tabrizi, the involvement and passion of middle management is key to reaching a successful outcome. 

Tabrizi's experience has led him to notice that roughly a third of change management initiatives find their original definition of success. In these successful cases, he found a pattern of high involvement of mid-level managers two or more levels below the CEO. He found that these mid-level leaders were not simply checking off the boxes towards change, they were actively campaigning for its success through all levels on the organization. 

In a previous piece, this blog has outlined some of the key qualities of effective change agents. Professionals in middle management roles need to embody these characteristics, as they are in a unique position to work across boundaries and provide direct lines of communication from their teams to the C-suite. 

However, to be effective in this role, middle-management must be able to recognize the need for change and the processes required to meet the final goal. Their belief that change will be the best way forward for their organization and knowledge of how to reach that goal can shift the mindset of those around them that are resistant to change and inspire those who are complacent. Of course, mid-level management must be able to clearly articulate the checkpoints on the way towards change and explain that the process will not be completed overnight. 

By recognizing that an organization can not change its culture until employees address their behavior, these managers can leverage their unparalleled insight into teams' day-to-day actions to gain greater visibility into the challenges facing the change effort. Their passion for their work is able to gain the respect of both their teams and their peers. This makes teams comfortable bringing their questions or concerns to their attention, as they feel like middle managers will have a greater understanding of their frustration and will champion their causes more effectively than an executive might. 

However, depending on the management structure of an organization, there may not be enough middle managers to have the desired effect. Organizations with a flat structure may need to bring in additional  help to break down the barriers facing the change effort and excite teams about future possibilities. Change management consulting is often effective in these cases, as their experience can help reduce the time required for the transition.