Ah, middle management: the whipping girls and boys of the corporate world. They’re the ones who get blamed when things go wrong, when IT projects overrun, disappoint, and generally fail to deliver. Their motives and competency are often questioned.
The bosses at the top and the junior workers at the bottom disagree on many subjects, but both often wonder whether just removing the middle-aged and middle-ranked layers would make everything flow nicely again. Google wondered so much that they got rid of middle management entirely (an experiment that didn’t last long). The top layer of management is keen to get transformation done so they can hit their targets, and the bottom layer are keen to improve their working lives, but the ‘frozen middle’ seems to frustrate them at every turn.
And they do wield a lot of power. Middle management are the people in your organisation with the most experience of implementing change, the most knowledge of how things are done, and the widest informal networks within the organisation. They can use these powers for good, or to resist change in various ways.
There are two primary forms of resistance, one passive and the other defensive:
Resistance through inertia. Or, deciding by not making a timely decision.
- In order to implement organisational change, millions of tiny decisions need to be made to support and enable delivery of the higher level goals.
- If the choice is always made to play it safe, or middle management are disengaged from driving through the changes, then change simply won’t happen.
Resistance through presenting good reason not to change. Or, the best offense is a good defense—in the form of reasons why the initiative is not a good idea (either right now, or perhaps ever). Possible objections can include:
- Security risks
- Budgetary concerns
- Other more urgent issues taking priority
Middle-management power need not go to waste, though. If your frozen middle is engaged in the right way, they can be not just the drivers but the engine of real change.
Why Does Middle Management Resist?
There are all kinds of reasons why middle management may drag their heels over a transformation initiative. Here are some of the most common.
Are they just past it?
First, it’s probably worth scotching the notion that middle management are just ‘clapped-out’, lazy, and unable and unwilling to change. While examples of these stereotypes definitely exist, they represent a minority of cases. In general middle managers are among the hardest-working and most conscientious staff you have. Much of their effort is spent invisibly trying to keep the ship afloat as project deadlines loom, meetings threaten to fill up their diary, and staff bring them crises and resignation letters to deal with.
All too often they are simply overwhelmed with their everyday duties and urgent short-term issues that arise. Focusing on more long term, risky, and nebulous change tasks is hard work—and an investment that may not ever pay off, if the project ends up going nowhere. This is a classic pitfall: continually taking care of urgent things over taking care of important things.
They've seen it all before . . .
The announcement of yet another ‘definitive’ change program is not likely to get managers enthused all by itself. This ain’t their first rodeo, and they’ve likely seen change and transformation programs come and go—and (almost by definition) survived them. Consequently, they may have learned to simply pay lip service to the changes and carry on as always. This too shall pass.
Is upper management truly on board?
One of the reasons change programs fail is lack of true alignment at upper management level. If the senior executive team are not truly committed to the changes needed, then that attitude will filter down to the middle management across the organisation.
While senior leaders might pay lip service to the agreed changes in board meetings and in public pronouncements, the direction given to their subordinates on a day-to-day level may not change. When these different subordinate groups clash at the middle-management layer over specific things that need to change, then the outcome will be the same as before.
For example, an infrastructure team tasked with ‘moving to the cloud’ might need to get the security function to change its policies. A set of decades-old policies designed for a world of physical machines and VMs in a data centre you own might not make sense. If the security function refuses to risk anything by changing these, then ‘moving to the cloud’ becomes effectively impossible, and the frozen middle appears to be at fault, when the reality is that the leadership has not acted in unison to ensure global awareness that this is a priority project for the entire organisation.
Case Study No. 1: Swapping Out A Back-End
Working for a software supplier to a FTSE-100 company, we had been engaged to replace their failing back-end transaction system with our own. An aggressive 7-month plan was put forward, which many (including myself) thought was not achievable. Fortunately, the CEO knew what he was doing. His approach was simply to have a small number of trusted deputies sitting in every meeting, ensuring that scope was reduced to a bare minimum where possible. When middle managers argued that some piece of functionality was important, they were asked whether they wanted the CEO to know that it was them that wanted this functionality retained. Scope was aggressively reduced, and the target date was hit.
This is an example of the board being squarely behind an initiative, backing it at every level. It illustrates the importance of senior leadership being involved. Showing support for the change through direct and visible action signals to mid-level management that, this time, change is for real—and taking risks will not be punished, but rewarded.
Incentives for change (or lack thereof)
Similarly, all too often the middle management are tasked with driving change through—but not incentivized to take risks or make change. Predictably, they fall back to the standard measures of success that they know will get them credit. And there’s usually enough for them to do to simply keep their existing projects and responsibilities on track without taking on worry over riskier endeavours.
Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas
Another disincentive felt at all levels is the threat that change may represent a potential reduction in power. Upper and middle management can both resist change because new power structures may threaten to siphon resources away from their existing positions. Those lower down in the chain are not immune to this threat, either. Automation programs, for example, can threaten the positions of junior staff and encourage them to join the resistance.
Are the targets realistic?
Another demotivating factor that contributes to the ‘freezing’ of middle management: lack of realism on delivery timelines and scope. A study from St Gallen University has concluded that one of the principal challenges facing managers when enacting change programs are ‘time dynamics’—a polite way of saying that expectations of change were completely unrealistic from the outset. Why play if there’s no hope of winning?
Case Study No. 2: The Crack Pipe
After a big team kick-off meeting for a major transformation project at a major corporation, I spoke privately with the project leader about the target date mentioned. He said: “If we get off the crack pipe for a moment, we all know that by that date we’ll barely be started, but we can’t say that to them!” As expected, the date wasn’t even close to being hit.
Planning fallacy—the tendency to underestimate task-completion times—is an extremely common cognitive bias that can wreak havoc on any change programme. It is particularly operative in uncertain situations like moving to Cloud Native for the first time: managers are eager to estimate the time and resources required, but have no idea what is actually involved.
Organisations often estimate the effort to move to the cloud in terms of months. The reality is that cloud transformations usually take years to fully complete.
For more information on cognitive biases that can impact a digital change initiative, see Chapter 4 of Cloud Native Transformation: Practical Patterns for Innovation. Here is a free downloadable 75-page excerpt to get you started.
In traditional organisations, the mandate for change tends to flow from the top down. Engineering and developer teams further down the hierarchy may be equally keen to adopt new tech from the bottom up.
Middle management, caught between these two forces, can be an unexpected roadblock to real change, ‘freezing’ progress through sheer inertia, inaction or resistance. This should not be a surprise; after all, these are not only the people with the most experience of change in an organisation—they are also how it gets done. They are also those with the most knowledge of the culture, formal and informal rules of play, customer base, and other business context. Moreover, juniors take their lead from the middle while top-level management finds it difficult to control them. In short, middle management holds power to make or break a transformation initiative.
If you are going to get your frozen middle to work for you, then you need to first respect their power and understand their reservations regarding the proposed paradigm shift. In Part 3, we look at tactics for transforming passive resistance into active engagement so you can harness the under-recognised power of middle managers to accelerate progress.