Middle Managers as Engines of Change

by Daniel Lock

Middle Managers as Engines of ChangeThe captain may be in the bridge, but is the engine room operating on all cylinders? 

Last week I wrote about the importance of leadership and change. Nothing happens until the top leadership says so. Leaders have this organisational power because they choose the incentive systems, the values and behaviours that create cultural norms.

But when driving change at a pragmatic level, middle and frontline managers are often squeezed and their influence on the outcome is misunderstood. One significant cause is that senior leaders misinterpret people’s value drivers. Social science researcher Dr Danah Zohar has looked at what drives senior leadership versus the frontline staff and middle managers. Zohar has shown that what managers and employees value the most in their work did not correlate at all to what drives senior leaders.

What the leader cares about (and typically bases at least 80 percent of his or her message to others on) does not tap into roughly 80 percent of the workforce’s primary motivators for putting extra energy into the change program.

This same effect can also be seen in research by Capgemini Consulting and the IESE business school annual Global Innovation Leadership Study. Based on a survey of 260 innovation executives around the world, they concluded that, “large organisations create so much distance between the executives and those that are tasked to innovate that a disconnect exists between them.”

These findings have profound implications for leaders. So how can leaders build the connection from top to bottom? Consider Procter & Gamble, famous for its innovative culture, was not so innovative in the early 2000s. At the time, just 15 per cent of its innovations were meeting revenue and profit targets. Frustrated with the results, P&G set about an organizational change program to recast them as an innovator. They pushed innovation responsibilities to the front line, embedding innovation and continuous improvement into everyday processes and procedures.

This required a shift in thinking about what motivates people. P&G reorganised organisational processes and coordination, ran works shops on the innovative mindset, empowered small teams and developed strong support and step-bystep process manuals. The results were significant – this lead to a new innovation in Tide washing detergent. Within a year, building on 26 patents, it incorporated these additives into a new detergent, Tide with Acti-Lift—the first major redesign of Tide’s liquid laundry detergent in a decade.

P&G’s turnaround suggests that the value of middle managers is underestimated. Wharton University researcher Ethan Mollick conducted a similar study. He asked IT project managers how much value middle managers drove, and the results were startling.

“After controlling for many factors, such as the genre of the game and the size of the project, I found that individual producers account for 22.3% of the variation in company revenue. Designers, by contrast, account for just 7.4% of the variation — a relatively marginal impact. For comparison, everything else that’s part of the firm, whether it’s senior managers or strategy or marketing, accounts for just 21.3% of the variation in firm performance.”

So why do such frontline and middle managers drive so much value?

To illustrate the power of coaching and mentoring in turning around large organisations, consider this story about how Bangledesh addressed the 1960s cholera epidemic. In 1968, researchers published a study that showed how common household ingredients could be used to tackle deadly third problem of cholera.

The researchers’ approach to change was a curious one. While radio was the main form of communication at the time, they didn’t choose to broadcast their findings. Instead, they recruited teams of fourteen women, cooks and a supervisor who went door-to-door, campaigning local village mothers. While the women campaigners were only semi-literate, they were coached in a straightforward seven-point script, which they shared with other women.

Each night after dinner, they held a meeting to discuss what went well and what didn’t and shared ideas on how to improve their approach. Leaders periodically debriefed with them as well. The results were significant: as other countries adopted Bangladesh’s approach, global cholera deaths dropped from five million a year to two million, despite a fifty percent increase in the world’s population during the past three decades.

Contrast this with other countries that tried to emulate Bangladesh’s success, but not their approach. Many countries tried to implement at arm’s length, going “low touch,” without sandals on the ground. As a recent study by the Gates Foundation and the University of Washington has documented, those countries have failed almost entirely.

The same is true of organisations implementing their change initiatives. While top leadership commitment is necessary, it is not sufficient. The direction maybe set at the top, but behaviour is only changed with training, coaching and mentoring which needs to be reinforced and modelled daily. Who else but a front line manager can offer this high touch help?

Change leadership is a contact sport. If you want to create momentum around change, engage your middle and frontline managers for maximum impact.

Want to Learn More About Change Management?

I’ve created a free eBook on Fundamentals of Change Management. In this ebook you’ll learn the fundamentals of change management, why it’s critical to achieve business outcomes, as well as tools and techniques to make change work for you. Click Here to Download

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Daniel LockDaniel Lock helps organisations unlock value and productivity through process improvement, project & change management. Find out more about him at daniellock.com.

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