The sandwich generation

the emerging role of middle managers in organizational change


Seventy-five percent of all change management programs fail because of their lack of employee support. It is no longer sufficient to base change management initiatives solely on a top-down model. In fact, to ensure the health of an organization, change processes must be embraced on all levels.

The role of middle managers today has evolved into the linchpin between senior management and employees as never before. What used to be episodic in terms of incremental change is now endemic to every organization. Change now occurs continuously. Through technological advances and leaner organizational designs, employees are often expected to do more with less. The result is a new role for middle managers. They are now charged with ensuring that the benefits of organizational change are communicated to those who implement it.

This guided discussion will address the new trend in project management as it relates to change and the evolving role of middle management in the change process, no matter the organization. The presenter and participants will engage in a highly interactive discussion about the four new role imperatives for middle management including creating a positive environment to enable adoption of change, developing accountability and ownership, realizing benefits of change and ensuring return on investment (ROI). In addition, how these roles operate within lifecycle of change throughout organization will be discussed. Lastly, the participants will address practical techniques to adopting these role imperatives to make change a more engaging, and ultimately, empowering process.


The middle-ground of an organization used to be called the “killing field” during the corporate upheavals of the 1980s and 1990s, because it was from the middle that many of the “headcount reductions”—the acceptable euphemism for layoffs—were pulled. The middle manager was the animal that prowled the vast savanna of the corporate world, and it was this very species that nearly became extinct in the organization's hunt for greater profits.

Since that tumultuous time, the middle ranks have been quietly increasing in numbers and influence, as organizations have now begun to realize that the middle manager has talents and skills that are absolutely critical as they seek to recover from the current economic downturn. The once maligned group of redundant corporate deadwood, middle managers have the opportunity to breathe life into organizations through their emerging new role as change leaders—a truly ironic twist for a group that once was the victim of organizational change but is now the group leading the changes.

Ultimately, if organizations are to be successful today, particularly in light of the current economic turmoil, then it will be the people in the middle—the nimble, flexible, and adaptable “leaders in the middle”—who will be responsible for that success.

The “Legacy” Middle Manager

Let's look at the role that the middle has played in organizations in recent times. Traditionally, middle managers acted as the vital link connecting the small group of executives at the top of an organization with the vast ranks of workers who were actually responsible for the bulk of the organization's output.

The nature of this legacy role was very transactional in nature: middle managers received the strategic instructions and directives conjured up by executives, then translated the strategic directives into granular tactics and, finally, transmitted those tactics to the individual contributors—that vast array of “resources” at the business end of the organization.

The workers then implemented those tactics, and effectively did the “work.” This seamless, vertical pipeline of strategy, to tactic, to action in traditional organizations was then replicated repeatedly across the organizational landscape by each vertical entity, or silo, and the company hummed along…slowly.

A New World

As businesses recognized the need to usher their products and services to market faster to be more competitive, a new organizational entity was created—the matrix organization. This new organizational structure emerged in response to the lethargic means by which traditional organizational structures moved information—up and down, and only across at the executive level. The matrix organization created what many thought would be a panacea, with the ability for workers at all levels to talk to each other and get work done together. And, the continuing evolution of communications technology made it easier for executives to communicate directly with the workers, thereby eliminating the need for the huge cadre of middle managers.

But a panacea wasn't realized by the new matrix design—not for the organization that lost the loyalty of the individual contributors, nor for a great many of the middle managers, who had either lost their jobs or retained employment in an environment of “more with less,” meaning that these survivors had inherited the added burden of someone else's job in addition to their own. They now had more accountability with shrinking authority and fewer people under their direct control. Into this new world, the middle manager of today emerges in what could be the pivotal role for organizations in the early stages of the new millennium.

The Changing Face of Change

The role that middle managers (be they project managers, program managers, resource managers or directors of project offices) will be asked to play is changing primarily because the nature of organizational change is in itself changing. Until very recently, external changes affecting organizations, and internal changes initiated by organizations, were one-time, single events. As events, these changes were discrete, were easy to identify, and a beginning and an end could be reasonably established. This type of shift allowed organizations to better prepare for change, usually with a more successful outcome.

Today's change, however, is comprised of many of these change events occurring simultaneously, and many of these change events are interdependent in nature, creating change of much greater complexity. Change is no longer just complicated—it's complex and it's widely understood that a complex environment is much more challenging to manage because the individual events cannot be separated from each other to be managed independently. This co-mingling of change has created a palpable and dense gestalt—an ever-present, pervasive feeling that everyone in every organization today senses, yet doesn't know what to do with.

It is into this organizational disequilibrium that middle managers are now stepping, finding their true niche, and adding their greatest value. They are now emerging as mid-level leaders, successfully spearheading change, precisely because of the skills that were honed when, as middle managers, their authority and accountability were asymmetric. When a manager has to accomplish something, with all of the accountability but none of the authority over the resources to get the work done, the successful manager typically develops:

  • Networking skills, helping to gain access to the widest range of possible resources,
  • Influencing skills, because if you can't compel someone to do the work, you must convince them that in doing the work, there is something in it for them,
  • Effective communication skills that clearly grab the attention of those above and below them, and
  • Alignment skills, or the ability to get people from different places to see an issue in a similar way that resonates with what's important to them.

And, as it turns out, these talents and skills are precisely what are needed to manage and lead the kind of continuous change that organizations face every day.

Four New Roles for the Middle Manager

What is the new role that's emerging for middle managers during organizational change? At a fundamental level, an increasingly significant role change is from “manager” to “leader,” or rather, from being concerned with completing tasks to being concerned for the people working on the tasks. Part of this shift from manager to leader requires an understanding of, and an appreciation for, how change affects the people doing the work. There are extrinsic and intrinsic components to any change within an organization when considering the perspective of the workers:

  • Extrinsic: organizational change is extrinsic to the individual: “Here's how the organization needs to change, and what you have to do differently as a result of the change.” In other words, change is externally driven, and the organization and its people are compelled to change, and
  • Intrinsic: individual change is intrinsic to the individual: “Here's what I need to change to be the best worker I can be.” In other words, change is internally driven by the individual because it's desired by him or her, not someone else.

In the fundamental role as a leader of change, middle managers—the mid-level leaders—need to help everyone around them change the way they perceive and approach change, from an extrinsic (compelled) to an intrinsic (desired) viewpoint. In order to support this fundamental role, four role imperatives emerge as “agent provocateur”:

  • Creating an adoption mindset,
  • Creating an ownership and accountability mindset up and down the organization,
  • Realizing the benefits, and
  • Securing the ROI.

Creating an Adoption Mindset

The goal of any change brought to, or initiated within, an organization is to move the organization from point A to point B. As an example to showcase how mid-level leaders can effect change successfully, a company we have spent time consulting on numerous change initiatives (that are internally generated, but are often in response to external pressures) had announced the implementation of a new employee performance management system.

This new system was enacted in response to the need for a reduced staff to be all they could be, and to improve organizational performance by improving the performance of each individual employee. This organization realized that the performance management system in and of itself would not improve performance. They rightly recognized that the system needed to be adopted/used if performance was to be at its peak within the organization. So, the adoption of the change is the goal.

But, what does “adoption” really mean, and what does it take to successfully adopt change? Adoption is the process of planning for, and then taking on, a change. Many organizations perform the planning piece well enough, but miss the “taking on” piece, in part because there tends to be some confusion between the term “implement” and “take on.” It's entirely possible to implement a change plan without the change being taken on. Many organizations spend a lot of time thinking about change and planning for change, but don't expend a lot of energy in adopting the change.

When the organization contemplated its new performance management system, rather than commandeering several executives within the organization to spend hours making sure that the implementation of the new system was planned in excruciating detail (the planning was detailed, but involved people from many levels within the organization), a cross-functional team instead visualized both the implementation and the adoption of the new system, as separate and distinct sets of activities.

A year later, the system was implemented and adoption, in the form of taking on performance management activities, has occurred faster than anticipated. A mindset of adoption is a mental frame of mind, and an attitude of actual beneficial use that continuously focuses on the desired future state.

Creating an Ownership and Accountability Mindset

When we assist companies in making changes within their organization, one of our first questions is, “Who owns this change?” Usually, the answer we get is: The executive sponsor. We've found, however, that the most successful changes occur when ownership for the change is distributed up and down the organization. How is a mindset of ownership and accountability built throughout an organization so that everyone feels a sense of owning, and not just “renting” the change? Once again, the mid-level leader plays a pivotal role in developing this mindset.

Once the need for change and the intent of the change is communicated from the executive level to the entire organization, the mid-level leaders no longer act as the translator of the change, but as the hub for insight creation about what the change means throughout the organizational networks they influence.

It has been shown that the best way to get people to change is for them to develop their own insights about what the change means to them personally, as they live and operate with the organization on a daily basis. So, the mid-level leaders work within their networks, reiterating the change articulated by the executives and asking the people within their influence the questions that will help them arrive at their insights and draw their own conclusions about what's needed for them to adopt the change.

The following questions can be made specific to the change situation, and can help people to engage in the change personally, thereby owning the change (or their portion of the change) more completely.

  • How committed are you to making this change, on a scale from one to 10?
  • What part of the change is creating an obstacle for you?
  • What part of the change represents the greatest opportunity for you?
  • Do you see any unintended consequences as a result of this change?
  • What can I do to get you the resources that you need to implement this change?

Realizing the Benefits

Organizations make changes to accrue benefits. Another question we ask organizations during their change efforts is, “What benefits do you seek as a result of the change?” We usually find that organizations don't have a clear vision of the benefits they're after through change, and that there is usually no one who is explicitly accountable for making sure that the benefits are realized. Additionally, if benefits have been stated at the outset of a change, they are usually described in a lofty manner, rather than in a way that can be understood at a more personal level. The benefit of a new performance management system might be visualized at a high level as “improved organizational performance,” but this would do little to engage everyone in the change. In the case of the new performance management system, the benefits that were visualized were made incremental in the following way by mid-level leaders:

  • More frequent performance reviews between managers and employees,
  • Improved employee performance around key competencies, and
  • An intentional career path for everyone in the organization.

Since mid-level leaders are in the middle of the organization, they are the virtual fulcrum for leveraging the incremental benefits, first by helping everyone to understand how they will be affected (see the discussion above about insight creation), and then by being able to measure the actual benefits as they are realized. For instance, for the “more frequent performance reviews” benefit mentioned above, mid-level leaders can help everyone to understand the benefits of further, structured conversations with their managers, and of being able to measure and report the increased frequency of performance reviews.

Securing the ROI

If organizations are adept at accruing benefits from changes, then these benefits can be translated directly into statements about what has been achieved relative to the investment that's been made in regard to the change. Of course, not all benefits can be interpreted directly into a monetary return. But as an example, the return on the incremental benefit listed above, “Improved employee performance around key competencies,” holds the potential to be described in monetary terms.

Let's say that a key competency in an organization is “straight talk,” and that a benefit of straight talk within the organization is more efficient and effective communication between co-workers. If a worker is able to document when an instance of straight talk occurs, the resulting amount of time saved through more direct communication (perhaps one conversation is held, as opposed to several over a week's time) can be reduced to a number of hours saved at a certain cost per hour for each worker. This one saving, representing a real ROI in a new performance management system, may be trivial by itself, but if similar savings occur across an organization, the returns truly accumulate into substantial “savings” and a resultant ROI.

In building a mindset for capturing the ROIs made for a change, the mid-level leader acts as the catalyst for everyone up and down the organization to begin cataloging the changes occurring as a result of a change. The organization can then document these changes, their impacts on the organization, and the returns captured. No one else in the organization has this on-the-ground view of change and its effect on the organization than the mid-level leader, and this becomes a key role for the middle manager during change.

Deploying the New Roles across the Landscape of Change

If middle managers are to be effective in their role as a change agent, they need to deploy these new roles systematically across the three key phases of organizational change. These phases are:

  • Identify phase: The organization declares a need for a change in some aspect from a current state to a desired future organizational state,
  • Engage phase: The top-down and bottom-up dialogue, and buy-in on the need for change and targeted areas for adoption, and
  • Implement phase: The organization agrees on the delivery of the processes and technology needed to realize the desired future state, the benefits to be realized, and the ROI in the change.

During the identify phase, middle managers deploy the four change roles in a way that helps to build the right expectations:

  • Creating an adoption mindset: Creating awareness and an expectation that planning for the change should include not only the tasks for installing the new tools, processes, or systems, but also the activities for assuring the adoption of the change,
  • Creating an ownership and accountability mindset: Creating an expectation that ownership of the change will reside in all layers of the organization, and not just with the executive sponsor,
  • Realizing the benefits: Creating an expectation that the organization will be focusing on actual benefits that accrue from a change, and not just on the “to be” state desired from a change, and
  • Securing the ROI: Alerting everyone that there will be an expectation that a change will provide both tangible and intangible returns to the organization, and that these returns will be compared to the investments made in the change.

During the engage phase, mid-level leaders deploy the four change roles to create the conversations necessary for buy-in:

  • Creating an adoption mindset: Conducting the conversations that are required to begin the adoption of the change, thus engaging people to spark the insights necessary to contribute ideas about what the change means to everyone to successfully adopt the change,
  • Creating an ownership and accountability mindset: As the benefits of the change become more granular and specific, establishing owners of the incremental benefits at the worker level,
  • Realizing the benefits: Creating a plan, with the active involvement of those impacted by the change, for capturing and describing the benefits/impacts of the change at the worker level once the change has been implemented, and
  • Securing the ROI: Crafting a plan for converting the benefits realized by the change into tangible and intangible measures.

During the implement phase, the middle managers deploy the four change roles to assure that implementation and adoption are occurring:

  • Creating an adoption mindset: This is a critical phase of change for mid-level leaders. Often, organizations are ready to move on from the change initiative, especially if many are occurring simultaneously. Focus on ‘adoption’ needs to be constant and can be guided by asking adoption-oriented questions such as, “It looks like implementation is proceeding appropriately. How is the adoption going?”
  • Creating an ownership and accountability mindset: Making sure that everyone is exhibiting ownership in the change, and not just the implementation tasks but the adoption activities as well. Obstacles encountered and successes experienced can often be gauged simply by inquiring,
  • Realizing the benefits: Asking questions about which benefits are being realized can begin to harvest the benefits of change, so a sharp eye on the documentation of the beneficial impacts of the change needs to be maintained, and
  • Securing the ROI: Translating benefits that have been realized as a result of the change into specific metrics that show the extent of the ROI in the change.

The Future is Now (in the Hands of the Middle Managers)

Middle managers, once threatened as an organizational entity, now have the opportunity to play a fundamental role in the future success of organizations. Mid-level leaders are now uniquely qualified and positioned to become the platform and catalyst for enabling organizations to respond to the changes necessary for survival and success. Through these four new roles, enacted across the life cycle of change, middle managers will assure the successful adoption of change that is now endemic to organizational life. Who'd have guessed that being sandwiched in the middle would be so important, or that it could be so much fun?

© 2009, Jonathan Gilbert
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida



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