Should Change Begin in the Middle?

Note: Looking back over my blogging history, I have been consistent in my views that leaders need to initiate, lead, and sustain change management strategies in any organization. This week I am going to contradict myself.........partially. Enjoy! As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/.

The Biggest Losers
The most change-averse, passive aggressive, and generally bewildered group when an organizational change begins are the middle managers. There, I said it! Now I will show you why.

Case Histories
I did a lot of work in hospitals in the 1990's and the early 2000's in the area of getting alignment around culture change. The task I always wanted to tackle first was to talk with as many of people as possible working within the hospital. The process I used was a focus group format, segregating each type of working group (leadership was done through individual interviews). I would gather up to 30 people at a time in a closed door session and have them answer 5-6 questions on a sheet of paper anonymously. After everyone had completed the task, I would collect the forms, turn them over on the table in front of me and ask the key question; "What question didn't I ask that I should have?" Then the flood gates would open and I would hear what was really going on in the hospital! This tidal wave of information usually came from the shift workers in the organization and, overall, this is how all of the responses usually shook out:

  1. The leadership group was generally in alignment (with some grumbling) with whatever the boss said was going to happen;
  2. The shift workers were; (a) thrilled to just have someone representing management ask for their opinion; and, (2) they felt that nothing they had to say or offer in terms of ideas ever got floated up to the top; and,
  3. Middle managers were stone-faced and generally unresponsive.

I started wondering about the middle management group's reluctance to talk and, subsequently, took notice wherever I went to see if it was replicated. It was. I finally got a middle manager to talk to me that was retiring anyway, so he was unafraid of any consequences. What he told me connected a lot of dots from my focus group experience. There were several constants that he shared with me and I confirmed in further work with other hospitals:

  1. Middle managers (in hospitals) usually stay for a long time - up to 25 years;
  2. Being so long in their positions with turnover always occurring above them in the C-Suite (the average tenure of a hospital CEO in the 90's was 3.5 years; today it is 2.5 years), had hardened them to just wait out the latest "flavor of the month" initiative that was being pushed down on them and let the revolving door in the C-Suite take care of the rest!
  3. The people they supervised often had high turnover rates and so they discounted much of what they had to say or offer, thereby suppressing potentially good feedback and ideas from floating to the top!

This was initially astounding to me but then, as I thought about it, it wasn't that surprising. In the military, I had noticed the same human engineering phenomenon occurring everywhere. Being in the middle, as I was, as a warrant officer, I was a middle manager and the same thing would happen there; the latest "light at the end of the tunnel" military intelligence strategy coming down from the top was usually stopped dead in its tracks by people like me and other non-commissioned officers. (By the way, this was usually a good approach, too; because that "brilliant strategy" from the top could also be very likely to get people killed!)

I digress.......since that experience, I have become very attuned to looking for this same phenomenon in other businesses and organizations where I have worked. It holds true. Then the question becomes, why doesn't leadership let middle management sell a change in culture first before implementing it? That would be too easy, I surmise, because, in reality, I find that most unenlightened leaders lump everyone not in the C-Suite into the same corral and send the same message to all.

A Better Approach
Why not let middle managers carry the concept of change to the entire organization? After all, what other group is better in touch with the people doing the work and the top leadership than middle management?

In addition, the power of influence of the middle management group far surpasses that of the C-Suite, especially if the mid-level managers initiated the change impetus. Remember;  investment = commitment.

Traditionally, we think of middle managers as managing incremental change — but many are change leaders in the making. When they align their personal goals and strengths and assist in the design of the organization’s goals, they can become very capable leaders.

How Would We Do This?
To implement such a process, I suggest four steps:

  1. Find a bold process of change, like Rapid Transformation (BenhamTabrizi - 2007) to follow.
  2. Communicate, especially up, with the company’s executives and the CEO.
  3. Embrace speed at every possible juncture.
  4. Bring in professional assistance from the outside to assist HR.

Wrapping UpT
The CEO has to own the vision/mission (the "Why" and the "What" of the organization) but the idea and impetus for change can start from the middle. Above all, I firmly believe that middle managers are better suited to carry, sell, and sustain the message and the means for change to the rest of the organization than just floating another "brilliant strategy" from the C-Suite. 

Agree? Disagree? Let me know. Write to me: steve@stevemarshallassociates.com

Next week: Millennials, Smillennials!