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Are Your Managers the Weak Link?

Equip your managers to lead your next major change initiative.

True or false? The most resistant group of employees in many organizations is the front-line employees. If you answered true, like most people you guessed incorrectly. It’s not our frontline employees who resist change the most, it’s the managers – the ones who are expected to lead employees through change.

Here’s why you shouldn’t be surprised: Managers and supervisors are often overlooked and underinvolved in the change process. As change management plans are developed and implemented, there’s a natural tendency to focus on the employees directly affected by the change, the ones who have to do something different. Because of their title and position, managers and supervisors are presumed to be on board and able to manage the change.

This is problematic because, until recently, change leadership and change management skills have not been a prerequisite for management positions, nor has formal training been provided through traditional “Management 101” training channels. Two remedies are needed. First, managers are employees too and need to be helped through their own change transition. And second, managers need to be given the knowledge and tools to help them lead their employees through change.

Ignoring the needs of managers complicates and compounds change resistance, which results in frustrated employees, delays, added cost and missed returns. When manager resistance surfaces, adding to resistance from front-line employees, the result is disappointed stakeholders and sponsors of the change initiative.

Positioning managers to successfully lead change isn’t complicated. But you need to know what to do and what not to do. Here are five do’s and don’ts for preparing managers and supervisors:

Do this, not that:

  • Involve managers and front-line employees during the design and development phase of the initiative. Both roles will need to deal with the solution, whether performing it or knowing how to perform it. Plus, they need to understand how it relates to other business policies, practices, systems and structures. Giving them a voice in the solution also promotes buy-in and ownership.

    Avoid assuming managers don’t have time to participate because of their current duties or that training them later will suffice.
  • Train managers on how to lead change effectively. Equip them with tools and provide ongoing coaching. Managing day-to-day business activities and leading employees through change have many parallels and touch points. However, the change manager role leans more heavily toward helping employees adopt, use and become proficient with something new. This requires a different skill set than daily business management.

    Don’t assume managers know how to lead employees through change because of title, position or tenure. In unique cases there are managers who have the natural knack of leading people, but for most people this is a skill that needs to be learned and fostered.
  • Incorporate change leadership duties as part of a manager’s daily role and responsibilities long before any major change is introduced. This will allow managers to have time to practice and get accustomed to change methodologies and tools.

    Avoid waiting to pile on change management responsibilities when change is introduced. This will inevitably be negatively perceived as added work and quite often generate unneeded additional resistance.
  • Ensure managers are afforded time to internalize the change before introducing the change to all employees. In addition to having the knowledge and tools for leading change, managers must be allowed time to understand the change itself and its impact on their role and employees duties. They, too, need to adopt and adapt to the change.

    Don’t announce change at the same time for everyone. When this happens managers are caught off-guard and will be unprepared to address questions and concerns from their employees. It places them at a considerable disadvantage in demonstrating support and managing resistance.
  • Evaluate how the change aligns with business objectives and goals as it is being designed and developed. If found to be unaligned, adjustments need to be made to bring it into alignment. Managers and supervisors are expected to work towards achieving business objectives on a daily basis. In all practical sense it is why the position exists. When the change is aligned with organizational outcomes and expectations, managers have a much better chance of instilling the change.

    Don’t introduce change that competes, contradicts or is simply unsupportive. Unaligned change places managers in a conflicting and difficult position. More often than not the change will drop to the bottom of the priority list while manager and employee focus will remain on achieving business outcomes.  

If there is one takeaway from this article it’s this: Managers are employees too. They need time to change before leading others successfully through the transition.

As principal consultant for Life Cycle Engineering, Jeff Nevenhoven develops solutions that align organizational systems, structures, controls and leadership styles with a company’s business vision and performance objectives. Jeff’s experience enables him to work effectively with employees throughout an organization to implement solutions that remove functional barriers and prepare and lead people through sustaining change. You can reach Jeff at [email protected]

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