Mercedes Fernandez: Middle managers’ roles and capabilities in times of technological change

Technological developments are redefining the ways organizations do business and going digital seems unavoidable in virtually all industries. What is more, digitalization is accelerating the pace of organizational change, and it is increasing the complexity of change management.

In this context we find some key players of change: middle managers. Their contributions often determine the success or failure of a change initiative. In my research, I tried to discover what are the roles and capabilities that they need to have in times of technological change.

Middle managers are in a position that requires them to be simultaneously change receivers and change leaders. As receivers of change, they must often adopt the change initiatives determined by the top management. As change leaders, they must drive the change down the hierarchy and make the change a reality.

As change leaders, there are two main roles that middle managers must adopt during technological change: helping others through change and managing team resistance to change. Within these roles, middle managers must have a variety of skills and capabilities. Let’s see them more in detail.

Helping others through change

Middle managers feel responsible for helping their team members to adapt to the change. This requires them to have certain skills and capabilities to support and coach their team members. Four competencies stand out as the most important in this process.

  1. Sense-giving. Middle managers must be able to help their team members make sense of the change, to understand what the change means and what its implications are – both for the organization as well as for individual roles. Team members normally do not know what the change means, which can create anxiety and speculation as to what their future will look like. Can I handle this change? Will I lose my job? Middle managers must then be able to convey meaning to the change and guide their team members in their interpretation journeys.
  2. Emotion management. Middle managers must be able to manage the emotions of their team members and act as “emotional balancers”. For this, they must have open and honest discussions with their teams and listen to everyone’s opinions and concerns. They must also try to find out the reasons for such concerns and to respect that some people adapt faster, others struggle for longer. Empathy is therefore an essential skill for middle managers in times of technological change.
  3. Middle managers must have the ability to organize appropriate channels for employee participation. Employees who participate in the decision-making process adapt better to changes. Employee participation fosters a healthy sense of ownership in the process of change and it reduces the uncertainty generated by “surprise” change initiatives. Allowing team members to participate helps the change implementation.
  4. Motivating and persuading their team members into adopting the change. There are different techniques that can be used, e.g. aligning the message, creating a sense of urgency, finding local change agents, or conveying a “what’s in it for you” narrative. But whichever technique is in place, middle managers need to be active and skillful in motivating their team members into adopting the change.

Managing team resistance to change

Even in the best scenario, change is likely to bring at least some resistance, and middle managers need to be prepared. Two capabilities emerge as the most important in this respect.

  1. Exploring the root causes of the resistance. It is not enough to address the behavior of resisting team members, but it is necessary to go deeper and find out what the reasons for resistance to change are, e.g. fear, flawed communication or a lack of perceived benefit. But in any case, middle managers must have the ability to find out why the resistance appeared in the first place.
  2. Fostering open dialogue and discussion. This capability is connected to the previous point. Having open discussions on the root causes of resistance is vital in order to assess possible mitigating actions. Open dialogue can also encourage team members to reflect on their own way of thinking. However, it is important to remember that the degree of resistance or acceptance may vary along the process of implementation. Therefore, change implementation is an ongoing process that middle managers need to monitor constantly.

 

Mercedes Fernandez is a graduate of Aalto University’s Management and International Business program. She made her master’s thesis “Middle managers as change agents and their influence on organizational change capabilities” in co-operation with CCEA.

Welcome to hear Mercedes’ presentation and discuss the results more closely. The free-of-charge breakfast event will be held at Keilaranta 1, Espoo, on Friday, March 1st at 8:15–9:45.