Middle Managers as Effective Change Agents

Ann All

My husband lacks self esteem, a problem I attribute to him being the middle of five children. If we learned one thing from poor Jan Brady, it's that middle kids don't get the attention they deserve. I think that same tendency extends to the business world, where senior executives get most of the glory while most of the direct management resources are devoted to front-line workers. Middle managers, meanwhile, toil away in relative obscurity in Jan Brady land.


So it was kind of heartening to see yesterday's post by IT Business Edge's Susan Hall in which she shared research from Wharton management professor Ethan Mollick, that gives middle managers some love. Despite all of the buzz surrounding the need for innovation, Mollick found that managers had a far greater impact on company revenues than high-performing innovators did. A money quote from Mollick:

High-performing innovators alone are not enough to generate performance variation; rather, it is the role of individual managers to integrate and coordinate the innovative work of others.

In addition to integration and coordination, I think middle managers also play a key role in organizational communication. That's because they are far more likely than either their junior or senior peers to have regular contact with coworkers throughout the org chart.


It's difficult to overstate the importance of that kind of communication. A few weeks ago I wrote about research on business change management from Forrester Research analysts Connie Moore and Claire Schooley. Among their findings: The two biggest barriers to effective change management are failure to communicate up and down the organization throughout the duration of the initiative (emphasis mine) and tackling too much change at once. So while I titled that post "CIO's Role in Change Management," I should have mentioned the importance of middle managers.


It's pretty evident from some of the advice I shared in that post, including a tip from "The Change Communicator" Marcia Xenitelis, who advised educating business leaders about change related to IT initiatives so they can accurately convey the benefits to other employees. Xenitelis advised IT organizations to "put in place a simple format and support them in designing a brief presentation on the system to their teams." I really liked this idea, though I think it might work even better if a business leader and IT leader jointly give these presentations. That more effectively conveys the idea of IT and business as members of the same team, working toward the same goals.


Given Mollick's research, I'd say it's especially important to make middle managers comfortable with the idea of change.

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