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Organizational change has become a part of everyday life.
Globalization, rapid technological progress and an increasing spotlight on efficiency have made stability and sameness a thing of the past.
Unfortunately, successful change is a rarity: around 70% of change initiatives ultimately fail. Consequently, an emphasis in business research is placed on identifying the driving forces behind successful change.
It is widely recognized that resistance to change is often its downfall. Because of this, most change models place people leadership at the heart of their strategy, such as Kotter’s 8 Steps, Lewin’s Three Stages of Change, and The McKinsey 7-S Framework. There is one individual, however, that gets overlooked both in change management literature and throughout the change process itself: the mid-level manager.
Stuck in the middle
Transformational change is typically discussed in binary terms. There are the change agents — the leaders of the business who are instigating the change — and the change recipients — the employees who have change delivered to them. Much of the business literature on change perpetuates this perceived dichotomy, with the majority of advice directed towards the change agents.
There is, however, a third group — mid-level managers — who do not fit neatly into either of these roles. They are not just change agents or change recipients but, in some ways, play both roles. They must receive, digest, embrace, and then propagate the change: they’re the change translators, negotiators and implementers, turning the strategic into the logical.
This is an unequivocally difficult role. The mid-level manager becomes sandwiched between their own emotional response to change and their responsibility to support others through those same changes. Effectively, they are impacted by change twice as much.
To keep their team motivated, they must find a way to put their own concerns to one side, to take ownership for changes that they don’t necessarily understand or agree with, and to win hearts and minds.
This article is a practical guide for mid-level managers dealing with organizational change, including:
- Why the challenges of organizational change threaten employee motivation.
- The choices a mid-level manager must make when faced with change, and the consequences of their decisions.
- The key strategies a mid-level manager can employ to successfully motivate themselves and their staff through change.
Why is organizational change so hard?
As human beings, we are conditioned to prefer stability. When our routine takes a hit, it leads to anxiety and fear. This happens even when we are the instigators of our own personal change: implementing and embedding new habits is notoriously hard. When it comes to organizational change, the levels of difficulty are further heightened. Here’s why:
- Organizational change is not self-directed. By its very nature, organizational change is born out of external pressure: from shareholders, customers or competitors. Consequently, our autonomy and control are displaced, and our sense of self-determination becomes eroded.
- Organizational change can be overwhelming and confusing. Changes are often planned behind closed doors. This allows the change agents the time to come to terms with the disruptions they are about to face, but the receivers of change do not get that same luxury. Announcements to the organization typically land all at once, often with vast information gaps.
- Organizational change can mean uncertainties about job security. Transformation is often the engine used to drive efficiencies, and sometimes this means downsizing the workforce.
When these facets of change collide and are handled poorly, motivation goes through the floor. The drive to perform at a high standard is replaced by a need to simply survive. If we have no confidence that the change will lead to better things for us, we fall upon a basic strategy: resistance.
The Change Curve
Resistance is the natural reaction to extrinsically enforced change, but this response is also energy sapping, distracting and unproductive. When your core motive is to resist change, your motivation to do the job required of you becomes secondary. Ultimately, this is damaging to your personal wellbeing and, left unaddressed, can put your place in the business at risk.
The image below is a simplified version of what is known as the change curve. Based on the work of psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, this model describes the four stages people go through during extrinsically enforced change.
In reality, our journey through the change curve is not linear. Organizational change — especially large-scale transformation — is rarely simple or logical: information is divulged in chunks; intentions evolve; key personnel shift to new roles. The more frequent the change, the more cyclical the curve becomes.
The danger point on the curve is stage two, where shock and fear dominate and motivation is at its lowest point. Finding strategies that allow you and your team to glide through this stage quickly — whatever the business throws at you — is the key to ongoing success. Those who are able to master this ability will obtain a significant competitive advantage and, perhaps more importantly, will protect their mental well-being.
A choice to make
The oxygen mask theory states that in order to help others, we must first help ourselves. In the case of an emergency during air travel, the advice is to fit your mask before you support other people in fitting theirs: if you run out of oxygen, you’ll be of no use to anyone. The same goes for addressing your own resistance before supporting your team through change: to motivate others, you must first be able to sustain your own levels of motivation.
If you’re lucky, you have a leader who offers the support you need to accept any changes that are coming. If this isn’t the case, and sometimes even when it is the case, all of your instincts tell you to fight against the changes. The manner in which your superiors choose to handle change is almost completely out of your control and, therefore, you must take personal responsibility for how you react.
For the mid-level manager, this is a defining moment. You have a choice to make: get on board, or go on the offensive. In other words, trust that the future is bright, or decide that it’s bleak.
The symptoms of a person who chooses the latter include:
- Carrying on with processes and tasks in the old way.
- Talking about the change negatively at any opportunity.
- Refusing to acknowledge the communicated benefits of the change.
- Distancing themselves from the responsibility of implementing and championing the change.
The consequences of this type of response are especially devastating if that person is in a position of authority. Their direct reports will most likely mirror their behavior, widening the gap between themselves and the new organization ever further as the change progresses.
To succeed in a changed organization, we must find a way to distance ourselves from this mindset and become a model of positivity. The first step is to make a different choice: take a leap of faith by accepting and embracing the change, in spite of our natural instincts to the contrary.
In order to do this, we must accept that we won’t necessarily understand or agree with the changes — and we maintain the right to challenge them constructively — but we trust that the answers will come. Equally, we must agree to accept the intentions of our leaders as good-hearted, and embrace the role of change champion.
Paul Berry, an expert in performance psychology at Human Performance Science, explained to me that self-awareness is the first step to emotional control:
“Once you have awareness, you can create behavioral and cognitive strategies to regulate your emotions. Are you falling into any ‘thinking traps’ such as catastrophizing about the meaning of change (i.e. ‘I’ll lose my job’)? How could you think in a way that is more useful for you?
Draw on the strengths you have shown in other areas of your life when you have experienced change. How have you managed to successfully negotiate a change in your life?”
Employing strategies to sustain positivity through the many challenges that will come our way will, in turn, enable us to support our team in maintaining their motivation.
Obstacles and solutions.
As we’ve already discussed, the greatest motivational challenges that mid-level managers and their employees will face during change occur at stage 2 (fear) of the change curve. Emotions are fraught, hope is scarce, and fear drives behavior. The catch-all response to these feelings is resistance.
It’s important to understand that the resistance people experience isn’t directed towards the change per se, but rather towards the products of change. In an organizational context, much of the change we experience is extrinsically determined — imposed upon us by external forces (the business leaders). This imposition takes away our feeling of control, and if effective communication and involvement are not well-executed, we feel excluded from the events. This creates an environment of fear, skepticism, and disillusion. Inevitably, motivation and productivity will take a hit until a shift in mindset occurs.
These destructive feelings reveal themselves in several ways. The mid-level manager who takes such manifestations as an opportunity to diagnose, explore and resolve conflicts with change has an excellent chance of maintaining high levels of motivation.
Here are the key obstacles to watch out for, and how to handle them effectively.
Obstacle 1: Fear of failure.
We’ve already discussed the fact that change is unpredictable, with a high rate of failure: it’s natural to want to avoid an association with a risky situation. We may also have reservations about our ability to be competent in the new situation, especially if we need to increase our skill level in certain areas. This is particularly common when technology is driving the change.
This leads to our first symptom: victimhood — the act of pointing the finger of blame towards somebody or something else, even before any failure occurs. The biggest danger of victimhood is that it fools us into believing that our destiny is in someone else’s hands — that we are bereft of control. Consequently, we leave ourselves feeling powerless to shape our future.
There are typically three roles that manifest in this scenario, known as the victim triangle: the victim, who denies responsibility and feels helpless; the rescuer, who works hard to ‘help’ the victim by offering sticking plaster solutions; and the perpetrator, who is the identified cause of the issue.
Typically, in the situation of organizational change, the perpetrator is seen as the business or senior leadership team, and the employee takes on the role of the victim. As a manager, it is important not to allow yourself to slip into the role of rescuer. Of course, you want to support your people through the change period, but you must encourage them to approach the situation in an adult state. Rescuing has the opposite effect, placing you in a parental state and your employee in a child state.
By instead framing your position as a coach, the conversation becomes one between equals. Ask questions that provoke thought and encourage acceptance of responsibility instead of offering advice and sympathy. Coaching prompts the victim to pull themselves out of their child state despair and confront the challenges (A.K.A. perpetrators) in a positive, adult, accountable way.
Other tools to help you and your team to overcome the fear of failure include:
- Framing failure as a learning experience. Failure is not a permanent state or a label of self — it is an opportunity to learn new skills and progress in our careers. If you identify a significant gap in capability, petition your superiors for skills development support.
- Instill a culture of accountability. Victimhood and accountability cannot coexist. Setting performance standards that are clear, reasonable and — where possible — mutually agreed upon will enable your employees to take ownership of their output. Back this up with a zero-tolerance stance to blame: take an oath as a team to challenge finger pointing as and when it arises.
Obstacle 2: Fear of uncertainty.
Human beings are wired to prefer certainty over uncertainty: one of the downsides to our ability to plan for the future is our ability to worry about it. In a study from the University of Groningen, one group of participants had a greater physical reaction when waiting for an unpredictable lower-level electric shock than a group who were subject to predictable yet higher-level shocks. We would prefer to be in greater expected pain than in lower, unpredictable pain.
Different people experience anxiety about the unknown to greater or lesser degrees depending on their personality and disposition, but the symptoms will typically manifest in the same way: repeatedly posing unanswerable questions about the future; appearing constantly bewildered; and grasping at old ways of working in the hope of maintaining control.
A collective symptom you will notice here is gossip. When information is communicated ineffectively, or not at all, people will seek out other sources. This leads to a game of telephone, where small grains of truth or conjecture escalate into misinformation.
It’s important to confront the subject of information upfront. Hold regular meetings with your team, either collectively or individually, and divulge everything you are able to as soon as possible at every stage. Equally, be clear about what you don’t know. Give them room to ask questions and feed these up to senior management where relevant, but make it clear that some things will remain ambiguous for a time.
At the root of this obstacle is our need for control. When things that were known and constant suddenly become ambiguous, we shift the focus of our energy towards regaining control — in turn losing sight of what we can impact. Hold an ideas session with your team and list all of the areas you have influence over. Encourage your team to focus instead on these areas — to get a head start on the changes and prove their ongoing value to the business.
Obstacle 3: Fear of exclusion.
There will, of course, be things that remain outside of your control, the most significant being the fear of unemployment.
One of the fundamental truths about change is that in order to gain something new, you must lose something that exists today. This might be processes, products, technologies — or it might be people. Jobs are less secure today than they have ever been, and many change initiatives will result in downsizing. People may live under the threat of layoffs for months at a time while the change process evolves, including managers.
Sometimes, simply having an open conversation helps to take the heat out of anxieties. Allow your team the space to voice their ‘what if?’ concerns. What’s the worst that could happen if ‘X’ situation occurs? What’s the best that could happen? How can we prepare ourselves for each possible outcome?
Tackle the layoff question up front (with guidance from HR if possible). Does your company offer outplacement support? What transferrable skills will those who are affected by downsizing take with them? Empower your team by reminding them that life doesn’t have to start and end at the office gates. Remember to allow yourself the same opportunity if you are at risk — reach out to your peers for support and suggest a similar session.
Fear of exclusion can also exist even when people aren’t at risk of layoff. When the change seems far removed from a person’s job, it is hard for them to feel included and buy into the proposals.
The typical reaction to this is cynicism — an open rejection of the forecasted benefits of the change. The best way to combat this behavior is by using logic. Challenge your team to systematically weigh the benefits and drawbacks of the change proposal — the results of this exercise will enable you to uncover the underlying objections they have which you can feed back up the line. If they’re struggling to understand their role in the new business, build a team specific vision linked to the overarching change mission. This allows you to translate the change into a cause — something that you can all feel a part of and take ownership for.
Communication, honesty, self-reflection, community, ownership.
Hopefully, you’ve noticed a pattern in the solutions offered in this article. To keep motivation and performance high during times of change, there are a core set of principles you can employ:
- Communication: Circulate information regarding the change in a timely and frequent manner.
- Honesty: Be transparent about what you can and cannot disclose. Offer feedback up and down the line.
- Self-reflection: Remain aware of your emotional state and encourage your people to do the same.
- Community: Rally your troops and become collectively greater than the sum of your parts.
- Ownership: Champion the change, own your actions and create a culture of accountability.
When you make these principles your guiding light, you and your team will stay motivated and productive throughout the change process.