Caught in the crossfire: Why are managers neglected during change?

Potentially faced with directives from above, uncertainty from below and disruption to their own personal circumstances, managers can be hugely impacted by organisational change. However, the importance of providing them with the support they need to navigate these periods is all too often overlooked.

A diverse and demanding role

Managers in an organisation undergoing change have a pivotal role to play, as they are required to simultaneously help the business, their team and themselves navigate change successfully.

Without managers, change could not happen, yet leading change is often cited as one of the most challenging elements of their role. Indeed, during periods of change, the manager may well have to operate successfully in a plethora of diverse and demanding roles. They can be an agent for change, a communicator, a knowledge facilitator, a guide, an expert, a coach, a friend and many, many others as circumstances dictate.

However, it is highly unlikely that any individual will be accomplished in all of these guises. It is foolish therefore to leave managers to sink or swim during this difficult period.

Therefore, when building a plan for change, the support network available to managers should be integral. Consider the varied challenges they will face and what resource, support and additional skillsets they may require in order to handle this multi-faceted role.

Put support structures in place

Change, particularly where job-roles are affected, is deeply personal. Not everyone will react in a similar way. However well it is communicated, the same message is often interpreted differently by each individual. Some will exhibit positive characteristics, understand the rationale for change and see the opportunities it may bring; others will not understand or agree with the need for change and may become fearful, withdrawn and disengaged. During these periods of emotional challenge, employees will naturally look to their managers for direction and guidance.

As such, if a manager is to best support their team and the personalities within it, they need a deep understanding of how different individuals can react to the news and the different behaviours they may exhibit as a result.

They must also be able to recognise the signs of stress or noticeably changed behaviours among their team and have access to support from colleagues, HR or even externally provided resource. It is also important to acknowledge that managers themselves can be affected, as well as their teams. The role can be a lonely existence, especially when seeing the break-up of a team that has taken months or years to build.

These sensitive times and complex interactions require empathy and emotional intelligence – traits that are not always in-built. Managers should not be put in these positions without the appropriate guidance and skills development in advance.

Effective coaching, whether in a one-to-one or team environment, can be beneficial to those affected by new developments and can often lead to significant, positive results. While many managers will have built up coaching skills, or possess them innately, further coaching skills development can be hugely beneficial to your management team. For thornier challenges, however, consider bringing in external coaches.

Help managers be ‘on message’

Clarity and communication is integral to successful change. To make a successful transition from current to future state, it is imperative that the desired end point and the proposed pathway to get there are effectively conveyed to the business.

In order to communicate this message rather than increase the confusion, managers must understand the decision clearly and have direction on what they can and can’t say. With a deeper understanding of the situation and the reasons for a decision, they are better equipped to give a more authentic message to their teams and front-up effectively when questions are put to them.

Appropriate briefing and training are therefore absolutely essential if a manager is not to be hung out to dry. As a manager, being able to articulate the plan gives them the ability to build confidence within the team and allay any fears that people may have. While people may not agree with what is happening – they need to know the justifications and that it has been carefully thought through.

Individuals must see the future benefits of the new landscape. A strong vision that is something to aspire to rather than something to fear. Fully engaged managers can play a key role in helping to cascade the positive vision throughout the business.

Overloading is not the answer to efficiency

Change is always a challenging balance between the human and structural impacts of the process and continuing productivity. No one feels this pressure more acutely than the management team which is often charged with ensuring that the strategy is turned into effective operational processes while dealing with the implications on personnel.

With the uncertainty of a major restructure it is natural to look inward, lose sight of the ‘day job’ and a fall in operational efficiency is a typical outcome. With change often requiring a reduction in head count and a stretch in individual responsibilities too, there is genuine potential to see workload increase at a time of insecurity.

To mitigate a drop in performance and severe overloading on resource, it is important to support all levels of the organisation with additional expertise and guidance. External consultants can guide and steer through the change process, providing an independent eye and specialist expertise, while interim HR support can supplement a specific division inevitably under significant pressure, ensuring no-one burns out.

A fundamental role of the manager is to support their team through the challenges of change. But are enough organisations supporting them? All too often we see managers tasked with implementing and managing the impacts of change but left overloaded and ill-equipped for the process. With appropriate support, they can be the catalyst for positive change so make sure their needs are not overlooked.