Human Resources

Empowering Middle Management for Successful Organizational Change

By Sarah AlexanderApril 18, 2017

In today’s world, change is a constant for businesses. With increasing technology disruptions, market changes, and globalization, organizations no longer have the luxury of preparing for, implementing, and subsequently debriefing a change. According to CEB, a typical organization has undertaken five major firm-wide changes in the past three years. This makes it much more difficult to do change right, and 75% of change initiatives fail. With this in mind, what can leaders do to help put organizations on the right foot for their next transformation?

Middle Management: The Key to Transformation

Middle managers, as the connectors between senior leaders and frontline employees, are the key to implementing successful change. Research by CEB has found that top-down communications make employees 22% more anxious and 19% angrier than other forms of communication.

That being said middle managers tend to fall short. Over half of all managers lack the needed skills to help employees adapt to change according to Towers Watson, and in a study conducted by Prosci, only 6 in 10 have been evaluated by their employees to be effective coaches.

One of the key contributors to this trend is that corporate investment in change support for middle managers is highly variable: some spend close to nothing while others provide extensive support, when perhaps the ideal level of support is somewhere in between. It is critical for organizations to gauge what kind of program will be the most effective for their people.  

Components of a Winning Change Management Training Program

The first factor that effective training programs share is that they are measurable. The leverage data in two critical ways: utilizing analytics to set concrete goals for managers, thus creating accountability; and leaning on data to gauge what training efforts are working at each level of the organization and subsequently tailoring their approach based on these insights.  In an interview with our Everwise team, John Boudreau, Professor of Management and Organization at USC’s Marshall School of Business noted, “It’s the future of HR to draw on this kind of data analytics.”

The second factor for an effective program is to make it applicable. Change can be complex, and understanding of change typically decreases to approximately 20% at the frontline because middle managers are often thrown into organizational change without having had the chance to gradually build the skills required to effectively translate the transformation as it will apply to and affect employees’ day-to-day.

Great change management training programs prepare them to do this by emphasizing simple, easy-to-use, concepts. They also provide practical tools and resources that will help managers understand the change at hand and clearly communicate the “what” and “why” to their team members as they see fit. As McKinsey has found, middle managers need to understand the enterprise-level picture just as senior leaders do, but they also have to be able to translate hypotheticals into concrete actions that the front line is taking every day.

The third factor of a strong change management program is that it is integrated. Learning is not a single event. It is a constant in everyday work life, so training and education needs to reflect this. The best training programs provide concrete experience and active experimentation. In another study, McKinsey also found that giving managers space and even encouraging them to practice what they’re learning in the workplace accelerates their learning and empowers them to have greater impact in the face of change. They then have a safe space to receive feedback based on that practice and discuss progression towards the concrete goals that they created at the start of the program.

Lastly, the most effective programs are engaging. They include one-on-one coaching for middle managers – something often reserved for senior executives only because of its cost. They leverage technology that helps create a personalized learning journey for each of the organization’s managers and provides valuable social connections with their peers and mentors so they feel individually attended to. And last but not least, they encourage middle managers to connect their core values with their work, which has been found to help managers realize their full potential.

With 73% of organizations expecting change initiatives in the next few years and a 650% return on investment for effective change management, it is undoubtedly worth the time, energy, and financial resources required to develop a top-notch change management program for your middle managers.

Sarah Alexander

Sarah Alexander

Author & Contributor

About the Author

Sarah is an elite triathlete and independent strategy consultant with an MBA from Chicago Booth. She is passionate about empowering others to achieve excellence.

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