Middle managers have many opportunities to improve the overall change capability of the organization beyond championing strategic initiatives, which was discussed in the previous chapter. Systematic research suggests that middle managers not sponsored as change agents can take initiative on their own to sell ideas, make sense of the proposed changes, and provide essential stability during tumultuous change events. The end result is that “unsponsored” middle managers synthesize and accelerate information flow, facilitate adaptability, and are crucial implementers of deliberate changes. 1
Selling ideas. In addition to the change agent(s), the senior manager(s), or both, “ordinary” or “unsponsored” middle managers must also sell change if the organization is to be change capable. The traditional selling of ideas is done from the middle manager to his or her subordinates and frontline employees, or “downward selling.” In most organizations, a major change initiative is announced by senior managers using lofty but vague visions and slogans. Unfortunately, the typical response of frontline employees is often hostility and fear. Rumors and disaster scenarios rush in to fill the gap. These negative reactions can only be challenged in private meetings between departmental managers after the formal announcement of a proposed change. If the middle manager can translate what the change initiative means to the unit as well as dispel myths and rumors, the organization becomes more change capable. If the middle managers are not sufficiently involved in the change design and objectives, however, this translation does not occur. 2
In addition to selling downward, middle managers also sell ideas upward to their senior managers. Organizational change begins with the focusing of organization attention, and not all focusing must come from the top of the organization. Indeed, middle managers with their direct contact with customers and unique perspective within the middle of the hierarchy are well positioned for this activity. As recent research has shown, middle managers make formal presentations to top managers as well as bundle new ideas with established strategic goals or issues. 3
Finally, middle managers also sell ideas laterally. Organizational change typically cuts across multiple organizational units, departments, divisions, or all three. To bring about that change, middle managers across different units must collaborate and work together, without the formal authority to do so. Consequently, the ability to sell ideas laterally and negotiate influence across organizational units is a key contribution by middle managers. 4 In sum, middle managers can be essential salespersons for change initiatives for all those that they come in contact with. Senior executives and change champions are not the only ones to sell the change.
Making sense of change initiatives. Sometimes middle managers are called upon not to “sell” a proposed change, but just “make sense” of it. Organizational life can be confusing and hard to understand, and the emotional nature of change initiatives makes it that much more confusing and “senseless,” as Dilbert cartoons repeatedly remind us. Due to their integral role within organizations and the lofty perches of senior managers, middle managers can interpret messages and signals given by top executives to the rest of the organization, and this role can literally be the key factor that unlocks its potential so as to avoid unintended consequences. Indeed, this sense-making function on the part of middle managers has been shown to positively influence restructuring initiatives or an existing operation, 5 as well as the postacquisition integration process of merged operations. 6
When middle managers are sidelined or blocked from being involved, they themselves can’t make sense of the change. This is true even in those instances when the middle managers have blind faith and trust in their senior leaders. Thus, it is harder if not impossible for them to make sense of proposed changes to others. Furthermore, even if they see the wisdom, logic, or both behind a change proposal, they will be less inclined to help others see the wisdom behind it if they have been uninvolved in the design and execution of a particular change.
Providing stability. As discussed previously, any successful change must preserve the core of the organization while changing its periphery. This stabilizing role is best handled by middle managers who are intimately linked with the rest of the organization. Sometimes, middle managers oppose ill-considered changes that violate the organization’s core values and norms. As such, not all resistance to change is bad, and middle managers can passively or actively preserve stability through resistance efforts.
However, even when the change initiatives are appropriate and well timed, middle managers can provide a stabilizing influence on the rest of the organization by directly addressing others’ fears and simply by listening. Indeed, there is even research to suggest that an essential skill set of middle managers is to act somewhat like an organizational therapist who pays attention to change recipients’ emotions and provides healthy perspectives in response to highly emotional reactions. As such, middle managers can provide an “emotional balancing” between organizational continuity and radical changes, and this balancing effect has a short-term and long-term impact on the organization’s health and survival. 7