Empowering Middle Managers to Lead Change

Whether you report to one, manage one, or are one, the middle manager is often a thankless role within the organization. They have to deal with the “relentless and conflicting” influx of demands, serving as gatekeeper between senior and junior levels. And while they’re meant to have autonomy over their direct reports, they often get stuck enforcing decisions made by those above them.

If you’re not empowering your middle managers, though, you’re missing a major opportunity to initiate change within your organization. Large-scale change is complex and includes thousands of moving parts, but needs to feel orchestrated and thoughtful to the individuals affected by it. A middle manager’s 360-degree touch in an organization makes them uniquely qualified, and in fact critical to successful innovation and change initiatives, in four important ways:

  1. Their networking skills help them gain access to the widest range of possible resources.
  2. Their ability to influence is key because your staff needs to be inspired, not directed, to change.
  3. Their effective communication skills grab the attention of those above and below them.
  4. They can get people from different levels or functions to see an issue in a similar way that resonates with what’s important to them.

In our work with clients, we’re consistently impressed by how middle managers relish the opportunity to lead change—in fact, they’re often the driving force behind adopting new ways of working. But if your middle management isn’t stepping up to lead the change you need, here’s how you can start empowering them to act as coaches, not order-takers (and givers):

  • Lead through context, rather than control. Connect the dots for them by sharing the company’s larger strategy. When a change is needed, ask them to come up with a hypothesis and an experiment to test their hypothesis. Context provides individuals the ability to make informed decisions, and removing yourself from creating the solution shows you trust their process.
  • Set expectations. Managers can often confuse “leading” with managing their employees’ to-do lists. Set norms and expectations for their role to help them understand their focus has moved beyond doing the work, and on to leading change.
  • Encourage them to find purpose. Purpose fuels passion and work ethic, and being able to speak to it inspires other levels of staff. Help them develop and share their leadership story to inspire others. As a starting point, we like this self-guided interview for leaders from former Herman Miller CEO, Max De Pree.
  • Provide feedback. Facilitate skip levels on a regular basis with their direct reports to collect feedback. And, more importantly, share what you hear back to your direct report. Help them understand and work on their blind spots and weaknesses.
  • Act as a role model. Don’t forget that you’re setting an example for your reports every day. Your middle managers will mimic your behavior, so be sure to model the performance you seek from your reports.
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