Managers—change makers or change breakers?

Catherine Smithson
November 24, 2011

It’s a tough gig being a people leader in times of change.

I call managers the squashed tomatoes of change. Senior executives expect them to drive change and do it fast. Team members expect their manager to cushion them from change and have all the answers on how it’s going to work for them personally. And, in their spare time, managers are still running their part of the business.

Is it any wonder managers often push back on project timelines, refuse to make subject matter experts available or are reluctant to commit their time to projects? “Just do it” is the change management method most commonly used on managers. And how well is that working?

Recent global research by Prosci, involving more than 500 change leaders, has revealed that managers, not frontline employees, are the most resistant group to change. I have a few theories on why this is so. All too often managers have been left out of the change process and they become disengaged. Or they are by passed in change communication and get the same briefings as their teams, which renders them unable to lead the change.

Executives assume managers are on board because, well, they’re managers! Competing priorities and KPIs are left unresolved. And project managers set deadlines without consulting managers on key dates and deliverables.

Yes, I know there are many managers who are change-breakers. My most memorable experience was the manager who was asked to open a training session for a major new product that would transform the business and represented hundreds of millions of dollars in capex.

Her contribution was to storm in, late, and announce that ‘head office’ had asked her to present a PowerPoints to the group. Which she did, in monotone, then left. The message she sent about the change was clear. My question is: what did her senior manager do, or fail to do, to make her so disengaged and ineffective as a change leader?

I’ve also worked with managers who are change-makers. The best recent example is a manager who lead her team through an outsourcing and downsizing process, which included a major change to her own role, spanning 12 months of uncertainty. She was able to keep her team informed, focused on the day-to-day, and she went to great lengths to support them in practical ways when the outsourcing was implemented.

Her senior executive manager supported her and funded change management resources and support. I’m not suggesting it was perfect, or easy, but she managed the transition well, treated her people with respect and was recognised with a global leadership award.

For too long we’ve neglected the role of managers in change. Change management isn’t just for end users or team members, it’s for managers too. Imagine how successful your current changes would be if your manager were a change-maker. What can you do to make that happen?

Author avatar
Catherine Smithson
Catherine Smithson is a leading facilitator, educator and consultant in change and leadership. She has 20 years’ experience as a senior manager and a consultant and has an in-depth understanding of best practices worldwide. She is the managing director of Being Human.
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