Want to Create Organizational Change: Look to Middle Managers

Companies focused on leadership and creating organization change often overlook the fact that true organizational change comes not from senior leadership but rather from the company’s corps of middle managers. While rock star CEOs like Tony Hsieh, Richard Branson, and Jack Welch receive a lot of attention for their leadership philosophies (and rightfully so), deep and meaningful change—the kind that affects a company’s bottom line over time–must start in the middle, supported by the managers who translate the CEO’s vision into day-to-day practices.

How does this actually work? Let’s dig into the case for leadership and organizational change from the middle, and talk about some actionable steps that middle managers can take to impact their teams and begin to move the larger organization as a whole and work to create a collaborative enterprise.

Understanding the Power of Thoughtful Leadership

If you’ve worked in the middle of a very large organization, you know all too well that from time to time feeling powerless to change work culture is common, and that leaders of small teams and departments also experience this. In spite of the difficulties associated with effecting change, it’s important that middle managers not fall into complacency, especially if their own direct leader is a less than dynamic or supportive one.

Strong leadership of any sort is both thoughtful and deliberate, and middle managers would do well to be conscious of the language they use and how they guide their direct reports as they work to drive change. Focusing a team on a commitment to excellence and delivering great value to the organization and its customers, rather than spending energy on resistance can deliver big dividends. With this as a strategy, managers can make change happen by consistently delivering great results and setting an example that others want to follow. The proof, however, is always in the pudding, and the commitment in the end must be to the team’s performance. Because like it or not, that’s how both a manager and the team they lead will be measured.

Leadership is Fraught With Emotion

Dynamic leaders are as much about the emotion they are able to channel and inspire in others as they are about their actual accomplishments. Even as a leader at a middle management level, you can put this knowledge to work for you. Great leaders are empathic, they never stop learning, are generally up for a challenge, they treat others with respect, and they know that the best leaders aren’t focused on control, instead, they get out of the way, provide guidance and support, and let their team make things happen.

Your Team Must Align with the Organizations Goals

A frequent challenge for many leaders is to suppress their ego; we all instinctively want to advocate for our ideas and collect the praise and credit when things go well. Much of today’s work culture focuses on celebrating the individual, and we are collectively drawn to and celebrate stories of the lone hero changing the world…it’s a very unnatural thing for us to do to put the goals of the greater good first.

However, the reality of hierarchical structure is that most large organizations are based on an intrinsic idea that someone’s individual drive to accomplish their goals might be threatening to those who hold the power. It is essential that a manager’s goals are aligned with those of both his superiors and senior executives. And it is a manager’s job to find out what they are and make them her own.

Michael Useem, a professor at the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania, describes what can happen when a middle manager decides to step in to support a senior manager:

“An unexplored but critical side of leadership is “upward leadership,” getting results by guiding your boss. Rather than undermining authority or seizing power from superiors, upward leadership means stepping in when senior managers need support in a way that benefits everyone.”

Useem suggests that the first step is to win the support of superiors, and the second to carefully communicate the reason for your course of action.

Amazing things happen when you help leaders achieve their goals. Know going in that it is not uncommon for top executives to position themselves in front of your cause; again, this is where suppression of an ego is critical. A great manager lets the team’s success be the company’s success. This may seem like a tremendous amount of effort and dedication to have your success go unnoticed, but that the reality is that people will know and understand your contribution. Over the long haul, as you continue to lead a high-performing team with consistently excellent results, your ability to impact the organization’s goals will increase.

Celebrate Incremental Change

The desire to have a big, bold impact on an organization is a strong one, but one of the truisms in business is that real change is always incremental. A salesperson doesn’t move his or her numbers overnight; it takes putting a shoulder to the grindstone over a long haul to build a territory. Sales leaders don’t impact their teams overnight either. Long-term planning and keeping the sales teams’ eyes on the prize, as well as ensuring they take the steps daily, monthly, and quarterly to push their numbers higher is the real job of a sales leader.

Other departments are no different. Lofty goals are good for inspiration, but laying out realistic goals and taking small steps to move your team towards them is what creates change over months and years.

Language is Powerful

I’ve talked about the suppression of the ego, aligning with the organizations goals, and what thoughtful leadership means. All of these are merely theoretical until they’re verbalized to a team. In business as in life, language is powerful. The words you choose to communicate your thoughts are incredibly important.

In his 2001 book, The Language of Leadership, Roger Soder, a Research Professor in Education in the College of Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, talks about using language to create a “climate of credibility and legitimacy.” Consider as an example the difference between approaching a superior with a question like “how can I make sure that I understand your goals and how you’d like us to get there?” versus walking into their office and saying “I have a great idea that will transform the way we approach this project.”

The same approach is also useful when communicating with team members; thoughtful language that clarifies that the group is a team that is interconnected and committed to excellence will get them to buy into your goals in a way that recognizing individual accomplishments won’t.

Change needs to happen, change can happen, change does happen. But in many cases, it takes patience, a strategy to effect change, and understanding how to motivate and leverage your position in the middle. Are you a mid-level manager in a mid-size to enterprise level organization? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and the unique challenges you might have faced, as well as any tips you have to others walking this path.

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