Imagine a big old oak tree full of birds. If you clap your hands hard enough, the whole flock will take off, and the tree will be left empty. The birds will fly in all directions for the first few seconds, but each individual bird will quickly adapt to the flock in a mass movement of circling around or flying away together.

Imagine what happens if you walk away and leave the tree. What will the birds do then? It’s highly likely that they’ll come back and land comfortably in their good old tree once again. You go back to where you feel comfortable; everyone wants to be where they feel safe and secure.

This scenario applies to us humans as well. It’s all too easy to announce, “Now we’re going to do this, and I expect you to…”. Like the flock of birds, people eventually return to their tree. You can’t just leave them hanging there. They need your encouragement, your understanding, and your trust.

As we mentioned in ‘The ketchup effect’ trap, a common mistake we’ve seen (many times!) is that middle managers either lack basic knowledge about the change initiative or haven’t been given enough time to go through the personal change process themselves (from denial to commitment).

This is often because middle managers aren’t seen as an important target group for change communication. If you’re a ‘manager’, you’re expected to act quickly and decisively, to be loyal to the company, and to do your utmost to follow the company’s strategic initiatives. Not engaging the middle manager in the change initiative is a huge opportunity wasted.

We’ve seen situations where middle managers and their staff have sat in the ‘big hall’ listening to management’s message that “it’s now time for a change initiative”. And we’ve seen how these middle managers tried to answer questions from their staff, while struggling with their own thoughts and feelings.

Imagine giving your middle managers some personal downtime and helping them to explore the change initiative themselves, allowing them the time to reflect on the consequences for them and their group before announcing it to the employees.

If you can get the manager – the boss bird – to realise the benefits of moving to another tree – or even to a new forest, then there’s no longer a reason (or even a desire) to return. A middle manager who acts as a change leader is the strongest and best communication channel to drive change – away from the old and on to the new.

Stefan Jacoby, the former head of Volvo Cars, once said during major business changes (at Mitsubishi, VW and Volvo), he found that getting middle managers on board as change drivers was the most difficult – but critical – aspect of a successful change initiative. This insight is also confirmed by research. It’s one of the major take-aways from the global study about organisational changes that was published in the book Big Change, Best Path (by Warren Parry). It also corresponds to our own experience.

So, don’t skip the middle man(ager)!

Staff are generally much easier; getting a newly hired staff member on board, or even an established employee for that matter, is a lot more straightforward. In most cases, it’s simply about performing tasks in a new way, or maybe with a few extra steps.

For a middle manager, it’s about so much more than day-to-day tasks: there’s internal politics, power, as well as their own ambitions and egos. Many middle managers are strong personalities who’ve made their own careers by being special in some way or by being especially good at something specific. You need to acknowledge and appreciate this.

If you can get them on board, you’ve won half the battle.

Practical tips for the change communicator

  • When you make your communication plan, start by entering middle managers at the top of the communication channels column.
  • Prepare communications to be aimed at middle managers.
  • Open up support channels directly to them.
  • Bear in mind that just as you have your goal of reaching out with communication (and learning material) about a new change initiative, middle managers have their own operational goals that they need to prioritise.
  • Open and responsive communication is crucial. If they can drive the change in the organisation, you too will succeed.
  • Skip any rhetoric based on ‘compliance’ and respect that they may know more about the actual conditions for success than you do.