When thinking of leaders and leadership, most often, senior-level managers come to mind. Essentially, those who are in the public eye, leading large groups of people and making sure agendas are pushed and achieved. Top leaders come to mind for good reasons, particularly at these times of unprecedented change.
One might think that the recipe for effective change rests on the shoulders of these individuals. But what if what sustains the change lies in the lower channels?
When it comes to launching change, some of the most overlooked are middle managers. This group can inspire the mass to action while balancing the pressures of monthly deliverables and conflicting priorities. You want to empower your middle managers to engage in the change from the onset.
So, when you lay your fingers on the staking pain of change, you might find it wise to invest in your less prominent managers and elevate the team experience by driving high-impact alignment toward the bottom line.
What do these new times call for? And how can you ensure the success of your business during unswerving change? I’ve spoken with hundreds of leaders during my research on change, and five themes emerged that have a ripple effect on change:
Beware of superficial compliance.
A top-down approach to forming the vision for change is necessary. This does not mean that the voices of lower levels of management become muffled or silenced during the process.
Instead, design more linear models of communication, and transition your managers from compliance drivers into competent facilitators of change so as to influence team engagement and mitigate the negative effects of resilience.
You can only demand compliance from your people for so long. And retaliation comes in three different forms:
• Escape: Employees quit in silence
• Clash: Employees switch to personal agendas, siloed goals
• Hide: Employees do the minimum possible and mask insecurity through passive resistance
Take note of that inaudible middle child.
Middle managers hold the key to team engagement and commitment, especially at times of unrelenting change.
Much like the middle child, the middle manager walks the fine line of a social maze, navigating between their leader’s expectations and their team’s exasperations. They show up as relentless, capable and willing to take on more change amidst the myriad of conflicting priorities hitting an ever-growing priority list.
And yet, they are expected to survive change and orchestrate divinely scripted interventions to keep their teams spirited and engaged as more and more projects take hold.
Invite dialogue with your middle managers and enable them to identify specific tools to help them navigate chaos and stay focused on what is important. Empower them to balance ambiguity with self-awareness and confidence within their circle of influence.
And so the middle child needs to be capable of capturing the emotional and functional while being equipped to handle the subtleties of reasonable resistance.
Overcommunicate your listening.
In all that you do, revert to the obvious. Demonstrate a sincere interest in feedback from your managers. Listen to their concerns with the intention to understand, while acknowledging the urgency for change. By being intentionally inclusive, new solutions may emerge and stubborn blocks may dissolve in their wake.
Plan time for feedback before and during change. Take a look at what is apparent to you but may not be as evident to your managers. Consider the implications of your communication. Are you confident that your communication is clear and balanced? Is what you share perceived as an implied command?
Overcommunicate your listening and leave room for open dialogue. Relieve your conversations with managers from “buts” and hinged title aspirations. Gift your managers with safe silence so the real questions surface. Allow them to challenge — and fully grasp, not postulate —the essence of your agenda.
Remember that it is in the small stuff.
Do not blame lack of loyalty if your organization has become a revolving door for new generations. It is the plethora of small, seemingly insignificant things that can creep into a healthy culture and send it crumbling.
Organizations with the most noble agendas can harbor the most toxic cultures within their walls. While impeccable values decorate the company’s hallways, the leader’s shadow may canonize symptoms of coercion, deception and fake compliance. Indeed, the numbers may look great on paper, but it does not mean the culture is not repressed or the talent not violated.
Evaluate your talent experiences and consider where and how you propel a workspace that fosters a sense of genuine value and belonging. This new virtual reality necessitates that you do more of what you already knew and revitalize what you may have side-tracked due to conflicting priorities and ceaseless crises.
Design intentional feedback loops that invigorate individual value and personal merits. The key is in meaningful and purpose-driven interactions that elevate the employee experience and reinforce a sense of community. It is in the small stuff. Be intentional about the culture you want to sustain.
Invest in the non-tangible.
The shadow of top leaders cannot be overemphasized in this day and age — it is the livelihood of a healthy culture. Equally important is injecting the right behaviors into the DNA of the organization. Your middle managers cultivate how teams see, hear and feel the culture. They also drive how teams embrace the change effort and execute on your agenda.
Middle managers are the gatekeepers of team morale. Their shadow cascades across multiple functions within the organization, thus creating a ripple effect with their peers and cross-functional teams. Growing this talent through targeted coaching and development experiences is pivotal to your organization’s success.
Innovation and real-time response during change are intangible assets. They are the product of purposeful investment in your lower levels of management. While the executive suite continues to monitor tangible assets that most likely overlook the impact of the leader’s shadow, the not-so-tangible assets can make or break your investment in change in the long run. The urgent can be loud. Listen to what is important.