Pipsa Purhonen: Line manager plays a key role in change interaction (but can’t score alone)

When a new strategy is being implemented, an organization or operational model renewed, or a new system taken into use, line managers are in charge of defining and implementing the change in their unit or team.

Interpreter or stopper?

The impacts of change on one’s own work are difficult – if not impossible – to understand only by reading. Thus, reflective and critical discussions are often needed from a team to truly understand the change: How will it affect an individual employee, a business unit, a team? What will be done differently in future? And most importantly: why? Without a shared understanding of the reasons for change it can be hard to commit to change one’s own thinking and ways of working.

In change projects, middle management is responsible for interpreting and sharing up-to-date information with their team. However, manager is not always an expert in operations or processes. Thus, identifying the needed actions and practices requires every team member’s contribution in change interaction, facilitated and supported by a line manager.

It is also a responsibility of a line manager to forward the information and feedback received from their team members to other management levels. Two-way communication and ensuring mutual understanding by asking and listening prevent change stoppers.

Communicating the uncertainty

It is a great challenge for managers to communicate in a clear and convincing way in a dynamic and changing operational environment (e.g. Rouhiainen-Neunhäuserer, 2009).

In change communication trainings managers often bring up their worry of not being able to respond to their team members’ questions or needs for communication. Line managers do not have all the information regarding the future. Sometimes the importance of change communication is also underestimated, and that is when rumors start to spread.

It is beneficial to put change communication into pieces. Line managers can admit that they know only this much at this stage. On the other hand, it is vital to define the timing and relevance of change information – it is not appropriate to communicate all at once.

The certainty felt by the employees in the context of change is improved with leadership communication that is consistent with the common principles set at the company-level. Transparent leadership is the basis for confidence in change, as Kirsti Malkamäki (2017) found in her doctoral dissertation. For the line managers’ perspective transparency means, for instance, decisions and argumentation that are based on existing policies instead of individual opinions or old practices.

Walk the talk

Managers who change their own behavior first, encourage open dialogue, and give constructive feedback, act as role models in change. It is crucial to be available. Excitement excites.

Middle management also needs the commitment of their supervisors and top management in forms of, for example, sufficient and appropriate resources or communication that takes the change forward. Without support, line manager is just an underdog in the context of change.