The most complex managerial role is to effectively drive the change management process in an organization.

Managers have to continuously alter their organizations to capitalize on opportunities and mitigate threats. In the wake of a generation that has seen global behemoths like Nokia, BlackBerry, and Kodak crippled, or Volkswagen and Deutsche Bank in distress, inaction and resistance to change have become acknowledged recipes for disaster.

Top and middle managers play complex co-dependent change roles in relation to the initiation and the execution of change.

Yet, when change fails, which it does two out of three times (Aiken and Keller, 2009; Kotter, 1996), middle managers are often hung out to dry. Indeed, change resistance studies often highlight middle managers as a hurdle to change (Fenton-O’Creevy, 2001), scapegoating them for unfavorable outcomes (Balogun, 2003).

However, insights from some of our recent research show that change, which is successfully driven from the core of the organization, is a story of managerial role reversal (Glaser, Fourné, & Elfring, 2015; Glaser, Stam, & Takeuchi, 2015; Heyden et al., 2017).

This is in large part due to middle managers’ ability to secure employee support for change –a key necessary condition for realizing change.

Rethinking ‘Traditional’ Managerial Change Roles in the Change Managment Process

Driving change can be dissected into two key managerial roles: Change initiation and change execution.

Change initiation entails the ‘spark’ for change, where managers identify a compelling reason for change, establish the business case, get buy-in from stakeholders, and secure key resources.

Change execution, in turn, is about realizing change plans, navigating the socio-political maze of the organization, refocusing existing routines, motivate employees, and reducing associated uncertainty for employees by breaking down long-term plans into digestible targets.

Initiating change has long been considered the domain of top managers, who take a ‘strategic’ view in re-aligning the organization with their interpretation of its environment and stakeholder demands. Middle managers, in turn, are entrusted with ‘tactical’ roles in executing changes advocated by the top, acting as linking pins between top managers and non-managerial employees.

The idea of the change initiation role residing with top managers, and tactical execution roles with middle managers, remains a deeply rooted assumption in management thinking.

But, are these notions of ‘who does what’ still applicable in the 21st century?

Why Management 101 is Wrong about TopDown Change in the 21st Century

The top-down tradition tends to ascribe unique role expectations to top managers, such as driving ‘turnarounds’ (Chen and Hambrick, 2012).  In playing this role, however, top managers often have to articulate a grand vision for change, with little detail and in ways that are aimed at an undifferentiated (and often external) stakeholder audience (Vuori and Huy, 2016). Given their near-term incentives, top managers may discount long-term projects (Souder, Reilly, Bromiley, and Mitchell, 2016) and fail to prepare business units for crucial changes (Vuori and Huy, 2016).

Indeed, top managers may be more generalist, especially at publicly listed companies where there is a strong focus on financial market stakeholders.

As such, top managers may underrate organization members’ specific needs and concerns, which are key to supporting change.

Hence, top managers fail to communicate what ‘personal valence’ the change delivers across the hierarchy and why it matters for different business units. This is problematic, as general recommendations that ensue often fail to embrace nuances of everyday life experienced by employees, real-time changing preferences of customers, and emerging technologies.

Ahearne, Lam, and Kraus (2014) further note that top managers are seldom fully informed when initiating change. As a consequence, they ‘might prefer communicating nothing to communicating information that later turns out to be incorrect’. They thus may provide employees with less information about the rationale of the change, such as what it means for employees and their respective unit, and how feasible it is. Instead, they focus more on the outcomes to be achieved.

Saying where to go without giving precise direction and without stimulating motivation is a recipe for failure. Of particular importance is garnering the support of employees, who have to live the change and can bring initiatives to a grinding halt if they are not on board. Yet, how do employees respond to ‘who plays what’ role in change?

How Employees Respond to Different Change Agents in the Change Management Process

Getting employees to support change is a precondition for effective change. Indeed, fostering employee support is crucial for avoiding costly delays, deviations, or even failures of intended change (Mantere, Schildt, and Sillince, 2012; Yang, Zhang, and Tsui, 2010).

Employees often experience feelings of uncertainty, loss of control, and fear of failure caused by change events. Hence, to buy into change, they need change initiatives that play into their specific technical and career strengths. Moreover, initiatives must also account for their emotional toll and the social fabric that is disrupted as a result of the change.

This lack of tailor-made prescriptions in top-down change often leads to lack of clarity regarding the purpose of the change. This results in an inability for middle managers and employees to make sense of required alterations to the organization. Additionally, it places a substantial burden on middle managers who face a daunting communication challenge, needing to execute change initiative that they may not necessarily support or even fully understand (Glaser, Fourné, and Elfring, 2015).

With middle managers and employees struggling to make sense of what change clearly means for them, success remains elusive.

In situations of prescribed top-down change with unclear purpose and merits, middle managers may fail to get employees on board.  Recent research shows that employee support for change is boosted when change is initiated by middle managers and executed by either top or middle managers, with the strongest positive attitudes being achieved when middle managers take on the initiation and top managers take on the execution—although this is the rarest configuration observed (Heyden et al., 2017).

Why middle managers should be encouraged to initiate change

Change initiated by middle managers can be a blessing because:

  1. It is more purpose fit. Change addresses what the business environment demands at a greater level of precision– as articulated by specialists exposed to it in their day-to-day. It signals participation in strategy formation across the hierarchy. The sense of involvement of employees in the strategy process, in setting the direction of the company, can be a powerful motivator.
  1. It is inexpensive. There is lesser to rely on expensive consultants’ solutions, no need to convince your people that external ideas trump internal ones, change can come from within. In fact, organizations often fail to tap sufficiently into good ideas generated from within (Deichmann & van den Ende,2014).
  1. Role reversal among the top and middle managers can be good for the organization and for the individuals’ standing and career development, especially for the middle managers. Middle managers need opportunities to initiate change in order to develop, refine, and learn valuable leadership capabilities.

Why are employees more supportive of changes initiated by middle managers?

  • Middle managers tend to be more directly affected by change themselves given that they incur reputational and learning costs (Heyden, Sidhu, and Volberda, 2015). Consequently, employees may believe that change initiated by middle managers must be truly necessary and is a risk worth taking.
  • Middle managers often adopt a process-orientation when executing planned change due to their intra-organizational focus (Reitzig and Sorenson, 2013; Vuori and Huy, 2016). This focus will make the change initiative at hand appear more digestible and thus more welcome.
  • Because of the proximity, employees will more likely feel that they are in a position to provide input and participate, which has been linked to favorable attitudes. Initiation by middle managers may offer opportunities for proactive involvement in strategy processes for employees, which often entails positive attitudinal responses (Gopinath and Becker, 2000).
  • Middle managers as facilitators may be in a better position to absorb what additional information and skill-upgrades are needed by employees for them to feel empowered and have confidence in their ability to successfully realize the change (Balogun, 2003; Caldwell, Herold, and Fedor, 2004).

Why top managers should take the lead in executing the change management process

Why employees are most supportive if the change is not only initiated by middle managers but also executed by top managers:

  • Middle managers often lack the authority and legitimacy to introduce organization-wide change. As top managers have a more comprehensive view of activities across the value chain, they can anticipate ripple effects and more swiftly pre-empt bottlenecks during execution. For instance, the involvement of top managers might be crucial for fast allocation of supporting resources.
  • When top managers execute change initiated by middle managers, employees may perceive that top managers take the concerns and ideas developed at other levels within the organization seriously. The upward flow of ideas and top managers’ willingness to adopt them is encouraging to those lower in the hierarchy. This perceived participation increases openness to change and infuses the execution with more eagerness and pride.
  • Top managers can create a performance management context that makes middle managers’ change initiation and risk-taking more effective (Glaser, Stam, and Takeuchi, 2016).
  • Signaling principal support and sponsorship of the change imbues the change with legitimacy and instills both motivation and confidence across the organizational hierarchy.
  • Top managers may detect and prevent business-unit specific favoritism in middle manager initiated change. Thus, top managers ensure that the proposed initiative is in line with overall organizational goals. This adds legitimacy to middle managers’ change proposals across all business units and fosters cooperation among employees and unity behind the change initiative.

Time to Flip the Script on Change Roles in the Change Management Process

In sum, change does not have to, or perhaps even should not come from, the top. Recent research reveals that it is not necessarily the traditional path that is the most effective path to initiate and execute change. Rather, it appears that roles should be flipped so that top managers take charge during the execution and middle managers spark the change initiation.

Findings highlight a blurring distinction between ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’ often encountered in management education through labels like ‘strategy formulation’ versus ‘implementation’.

We encourage organizations to challenge these notions and to help both top and middle managers embrace change roles that have not traditionally been considered part of their job description.

That said, there needs to be a platform or market for change initiatives and the opportunity for middle managers to speak up and generate support among top managers, who then take charge and lead the execution. This change in interpretation of ‘who does one’ will also have implications for the design of support systems, including rewards, incentives, career recognition, and professional development opportunities for supplementary skills.

Altogether, navigating change effectively might benefit from encouraging change initiation from the core of the organization, while letting execution be driven from the top.

For long-term impact to be sustained and embraced across all levels of the hierarchy, it is appropriate to try out inside-out, middle-up change.

Now, perhaps, more than ever, managers who are closest to the action have to take charge and initiate change.



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