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Middle managers matter

Change initiated by middle managers rather than top managers wins greater employee support, says new study co-authored at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Shot of a businessman giving a presentation to his colleagues in an office

Organisational change initiated by middle managers engenders higher employee support than change launched by top management, and particularly when top bosses carry out the change execution, finds a new study co-authored at Cambridge Judge Business School.

The study published in the Journal of Management Studies says that companies should better blend the different skills of top managers (TMs) and middle managers (MMs) to effect fruitful change – in order to break away from a too-common blame culture in which TMs blame MMs for being “unenthusiastic” and MMs blame TMs for being “unwilling to listen.”

Professor Shahzad Ansari

Professor Shahzad Ansari

“There’s a high failure rate of change processes in companies and other organisations, often due to poor employee support,” says study co-author Shahzad Ansari, Professor of Strategy and Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School.

“Our study looks at how middle managers and top managers can best work together to win employee support and drive constructive change. The most employee support comes when middle managers devise the change ideas, and support is then strengthened if top managers implement those steps.”

The study cites middle managers’ proximity to employees and knowledge of core technologies as key factors in MMs’ ability to win over rank-and-file support for changes they instigate. This support is amplified when the MMs’ ideas are carried out by top managers, owing to TMs’ conceptualisation and resource-allocation skills.

“The good news is that it is possible to mobilise support among employees and to motivate them to pursue organisation-wide interests,” says the study, which is based on 1,795 survey responses in 468 organisations undergoing substantive change. “However, TMs and MMs need to be mindful of their co-dependence, the change roles they embrace, and how they embrace these roles.”

Previous studies have mostly focused on “top-down” versus “bottom-up” approaches to change management, usually looking at such streams in parallel with little interaction or “cross-fertilisation” between the roles of TMs and MMs. The new study, urging a rethink of top-down versus bottom-up, argues that both TMs and MMs can take on the role of either change initiator or executor.

The study was conducted in the Netherlands, focusing on companies and other organisations undergoing substantive planned change. There were four change categories studied: change initiated and executed by TMs; initiated by TMs and executed by MMs; initiated by MMs and executed by TMs; and initiated and executed by MMs. The greatest employee support came when MMs initiated change and TMs executed those changes, though this was the least common scenario.

“Traditionally, change management has been examined in terms of strategy formulation versus tactical implementation, but we think this dichotomy has lost much of its usefulness,” says Ansari. “There are different ways that managers at various levels of a hierarchical structure can influence and effect change, and these should be pursued.”

The study suggests steps companies might take to take account of the findings, including TM encouragement of MM change instigation and targeted management development programmes that focus on MMs’ idea selection and TMs’ execution abilities.

The study – entitled “Rethinking ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ roles of top and middle managers in organizational change: implications for employee support” – is co-authored by Mariano Heyden of Monash Business School in Australia, Sebastian Fourné of Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, Bastiaan Koene of Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands; Renate Werkman of management-training institute Kantelwerkers in the Netherlands, and Professor Shahzad Ansari of Cambridge Judge Business School.