Module 8: Factors Affecting Organizational Capacity for Change - Leadership and Management

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Involved Middle Management

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Factors Affecting Organizational Capacity for Change

Leadership and Management

Involved Middle Management

The Evolving World of Middle Management

In the 1990s, many firms eliminated middle management positions and replaced them with computers. [1]

One of the most common terms for this was “delayering,” which is standard code for “eliminating all the nonproductive employees in the middle management ranks.”

Middle managers now have more autonomy relative to the past, but experience much more monitoring.

They have more job stress and are working longer hours. And there is less career progression within one firm, but more job hopping between firms. [2]

Middle Managers Contributions to Change

Middle managers have many opportunities to improve the overall change capability of the organization beyond championing strategic initiatives.

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. [3]

Middle Managers can be useful in the change process as they are often closer to the staff!

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 slides.

Middle Manager Change Roles - 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.” [4]

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.

Middle Manager Change Roles - 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.

Middle managers are in regular contact with staff! Use them to enhance communication during change!

Middle Manager Change Roles - 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.

If the middle manager is psychologically skilled and aware, many of these painful outcomes can be avoided or minimized during change initiatives.

Clearly, if middle managers are involved and engaged with the change process, they are more likely to be able to fulfill this role.

Middle managers should be involved in the change process from the start – it will pay dividends in the long run!

Middle Manager Change Roles - 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.

Practices for Building the Trusting Followers Dimension

If you are interested in involving middle management in the change process within your organization, the following are some actionable ideas that you can pursue to make that a reality.

Try to implement some of the following practices in order to involve middle management more in the change process!

Practice 1: Invest in Middle Manager Skills, Especially During Slow Periods

When the economy is growing robustly and the organization is hitting its performance targets, investing in manager development initiatives is relatively easy to do.
However, during slow periods, most organizations suspend all professional development initiatives, especially for middle managers. This is a missed opportunity

During slow periods, investing in human capital is an ideal time to enhance the skills of your middle management ranks.

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Slow periods bring about fear within the employees’ ranks and present a unique opportunity to add new skills.

By investing in management development initiatives for middle managers, the organization sends a signal that these employees are important, which reduces fear, and it generates loyalty.

Practice 2: Tailor Rewards to Things That Middle Managers Value

Not all middle managers want to become senior managers, some are content with the way things are.

Most reward and recognition systems are designed to motivate and reward the A players. This needs to change. Change-capable organizations recognize the differences between A and B players and revise their reward systems to align with these differences.

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In sum, recognize the differences between change champions and middle managers, and adjust your organizational systems to reward both types of management. [5]


For example, rather than offering more compensation, sometimes the gift of time is valued as much if not more by some employees.

Rather than offer a single career track, multiple career tracks should be considered since not all managers want the same careers and stress as do A players.

Practice 3: Don’t Ignore the Plateaued Middle Manager

Some middle managers provide solid and consistent performance, but they have plateaued in their careers. As a result, these plateaued managers are often older and less energetic than the change champions.

However, with age sometimes comes wisdom and proven social networks and these individual capabilities are invaluable when the organization is confronted with change.

Perhaps this is why a recent research study found that the most effective managers in engaging with transformative change were the older, plateaued middle managers, as compared with the younger, rising stars. [6]

Experience can be invaluable during the change process- middle management often possess significant experience!

Practice 4: Involve Middle Managers in the Strategy Formation Process

In today’s increasingly information-based economy, successful strategy is about learning faster than the competition.

Therefore, it only makes sense that involving the middle managers engaged with day-to-day operations as well as the customers can be a valuable source of learning and testing of strategic change ideas.

Indeed, more and more research suggests that high-performance organizations regularly involve their middle managers in the substantive development of organizational strategy, as well as in its execution. [7]

Practice 5: Create a “Leadership Engine”

Middle managers are not just doers, they also are thinkers. And if given the chance and the right circumstances, middle managers can also be leaders. [8]

Adaptable and innovative organizations grow leadership at every level, and create a wide and deep array of internal talent to call upon in times of need. Leadership is not the preserve for a select few, but for as many in the organization as possible.

Innovative organizations develop a “teachable point of view” on business ideas and values, and this can accelerate knowledge creation and transfer within the firm.

Practice 6: Enable Middle Managers to Constructively Challenge Senior Leaders

Middle managers need to have access to the senior leaders and they need to be allowed to deliver news that is not flattering.

Many significant organizational disasters-such as the British Petroleum oil rig explosion or the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme-could have been prevented or mitigated if those in the middle management ranks were allowed to voice constructive criticism.

Organizations must cultivate courage in the middle management ranks to speak “truth to hierarchy,” [9] and senior leaders need to be focused more on the well-being of the organization than on their own personal well-being. [10]

Constructive criticism can be extremely beneficial in the change process – allow your middle managers to do so!


[1] Stewart (1995). Planning a career in a world without managers. Fortune, 131(5): 72-76.

[2] McCann, Morris, & Hassard (2008). Normalized intensity: The new labour process of middle management. Journal of Management Studies, 45(2), 343-363.

[3] Floyd and Wooldridge (1996). The strategic middle manager: How to create and sustain competitive advantage. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[4] Huy (2001), p. 73. In praise of middle managers. Harvard Business Review, 72-79.

[5] DeLong and Vijayaraghavan (2003). Let’s hear it for B players.Harvard Business Review, 81(6), 96-102.

[6] Spreitzer and Quinn (1995). Empowering middle managers to be transformational leaders. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 32(3), 237-263.

[7] Floyd and Wooldridge (1996). The strategic middle manager: How to create and sustain competitive advantage. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[8] Tichy and Cohen (1997). The leadership engine. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.

[9] Chaleff (2009). The courageous follower: Standing up to and for our leaders. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

[10] Judge (1999). The leader’s shadow: Exploring and developing executive character. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


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