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Middle Managers as Change Makers



The importance of the strategic role played by middle managers in formulation and implementation of organisational change has been acknowledged by many academics and evidenced by the findings of numerous studies undertaken over the last 40 years [1].

Those studies prove that middle managers are not just passive “messengers” used by senior managers to spread their vision and ideas throughout the organisation. They play critical roles in facilitating organisational change by providing senior managers with a unique interpretation of emerging issues, championing new initiatives, influencing senior managers’ strategic thinking and ensuring the implementation of senior managers’ vision and plans.

During organisational change managers are expected not only to change the way they and their staff operate, but also to increase the effectiveness of their organisation, motivate people to do more than they originally intended and often even more than they believed is possible. They increase the ability of an organisation to respond to change effectively by stimulating development in others and promoting learning.

This is particularly important nowadays because even the nature of organisational change itself is changing - moving from what used to be episodic, single events in terms of incremental change, to what is now endemic to every organisation. Change events are now occurring simultaneously, and many of these change events are inter-dependent in nature, creating change of much greater complexity and scale. Such a complex environment is much more challenging to manage because the individual events cannot be separated from each other to be dealt with independently.

This complexity is also difficult for people to cope with – at all levels of an organisation. Yet this complexity allows middle managers to find their true niche, and add their greatest value due to the skills they develop while trying to do their job, with all of the accountability but little of the authority over the resources to get the work done. These include: networking skills; influencing skills; effective communication skills; and alignment skills, or the ability to get people from different places to see an issue in a similar way that resonates with what is important to them. [2]

It can be argued that the role of middle managers as change makers consists of four interrelated roles:

i) undertaking personal change (not only in terms of their roles and responsibilities, but also in the way they thought of their roles) with its major aspect being an ongoing and gradual sensemaking;

ii) helping others through change, including helping others to make sense of things, or sensegiving;

iii) keeping the business going alongside all the changes going around them, which demands constant attention to juggling priorities; and

iv) implementing changes needed. [3]

Due to their unique role and skills, middle managers often can have the single largest impact on any organisation. According to a report published by Sheffield Business School [4], more than 90% of senior leaders see middle managers as critical for identifying, encouraging and supporting the development of future leaders and, indeed, the future of their organisations.


But good managers are not just appearing out of nowhere. They are being created by organisations by means of continuous investment in understanding their workforce, in staff training and development, as well as identifying and utilising opportunities for personal growth during the periods of organisational change and “business as usual”. This includes raising the bar by inspiring middle managers to be bolder in championing the vision and goals of an organisation; encouraging them to challenge conventional wisdom, assumptions and status quo; empowering them to deliver on things that they identify as missing and essential. Yet the report of the Sheffield Business School [4] identified middle managers as still the most in need of training and development.

There is substantial evidence that up to 70% of all change initiatives fail. [5] Very often resistance to change is named as a significant contributing factor in this failure rate. However, research on resistance indicates that it can emerge from ineffective change management, from the lack of capacity in middle managers to undertake their crucial change making role effectively. A study published in the Australian Journal of Public Administration [6] concluded that when organisations do actively support the systematic development of change management capabilities in their middle managers, they are able to reduce resistance to change and significantly improve the outcomes of organisational change initiatives.

Recent work in the field of change management uncovered an interesting trend. Using a unique data set with information on both top management and middle managers from over 450 global firms, researchers were able to examine how bosses and their subordinates should best combine their roles in a change process - and how this dynamic would impact on wider support for change within the organisation. The findings of this research revealed the importance of the change maker role of middle managers and effective teamwork as the key to successful implementation of change initiatives. [7]


Synergies of teams thrive on diversity of individual strengths of people working together in a cooperative effort so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. One of the effective ways to identify and map those strengths at individual, team and organisational levels is The Change Maker Profile which can be used alongside other change management tools to create solid foundations for success of organisational change initiatives in any organisation. [8]

The online profile takes between 5 and 10 minutes to complete. It gives individuals the insight to understand their role throughout every stage of the change process and the tools to enable them play to their natural strengths and maximise their contribution to change. Leaders will gain the insight to understand what makes a game-changing team; and the tools and insight to define and assign roles and build teams effectively to support change.

Get in touch with The Change Maker Group to find out what type of a change maker you are and how you can create and get the best out of the team of change makers in your organisation.


Zoryna O'Donnell is a speaker, leadership development expert, coach and management consultant. She can be reached at zoryna@thechangemakergroup.com

End Notes

[1] See, for example:

* Guth, W.D. and MacMillan, I.C. (1986). ‘Strategy implementation versus middle management self-interest’. Strategic Management Journal, 7, 313-27. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/smj.4250070403 ;

* Schilit, W.K. (1987). ‘An examination of the influence of middle level managers in formulating and implementing strategic decisions’. Journal of Management Studies, 24, 271-93. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-6486.1987.tb00703.x ;

* Balogun, J. (2003). ‘From Blaming the Middle to Harnessing its Potential: Creating Change Intermediaries’. British Journal of Management, 14, 69-83. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1467-8551.00266

* Rouleau, L. and Balogun, J. (2011) “Middle Managers, Strategic Sensemaking, and Discursive Competence”. Journal of Management Studies, 48/5, 953-983. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-6486.2010.00941.x

[2] Gilbert, J. (2009). The sandwich generation: the emerging role of middle managers in organizational change. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2009—North America, Orlando, FL. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute. https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/emerging-role-middle-managers-organizational-change-6743

[3] Balogun, J. (2003). ‘From Blaming the Middle to Harnessing its Potential: Creating Change Intermediaries’. British Journal of Management, 14, 69-83. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1467-8551.00266

[4] Middle managers key to developing future leaders, says Sheffield Business School http://hrmagazine.co.uk/article-details/middle-managers-key-to-developing-future-leaders-says-sheffield-business-school

[5] See, for example:

* Burnes, B. and Jackson, P. (2011) Success and Failure In Organizational Change: An Exploration of the Role of Values. Journal of Change Management, 11 (2), 133-162. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/241728991_Success_and_Failure_In_Organizational_Change_An_Exploration_of_the_Role_of_Values

* Ewenstein, B., Smith, W. and Sologar, A. (2015) Changing Change Management. McKinsey & Company https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/leadership/changing-change-management

[6] Buick, F., Blackman, D. and Johnson, S. (2018) Enabling Middle Managers as Change Agents: Why Organisational Support Needs to Change. Australian Journal of Public Administration, 77 (2), 222-235. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1467-8500.12293

[7] Koebe, B. (2017) Why Middle Managers, Rather Than Senior Leaders, Should Initiate Organizational Change. Forbes, 27 November 2017 https://www.forbes.com/sites/rsmdiscovery/2017/11/27/why-middle-managers-rather-than-senior-leaders-should-initiate-organisational-change/#2f05cfff2188

[8] The Change Maker Profile https://www.thechangemakergroup.com/thechangemakerprofile

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