It is a myth that senior managers don’t resist change and that they are fully on board when the decision to implement a change initiative is taken.
In this post I will focus specifically on the reasons why line managers resist change and what to do to minimize the negative effects. Line managers are key in the implementation of change in an organization: they are those who have day to day access to their teams and that can influence and guide them through the change. They are your most powerful change agents.
However, if they are those who are resisting change, it is unlikely that will play an active role as a change facilitator. On the contrary, with their resisting behavior they can “kill” your initiative. Therefore, it is important to understand why they may resist change and to be proactive in minimizing its detrimental effects.
Let’s start with the first question: why do senior managers and line managers resist change? There are several reasons. The most relevant are:
- They feel left out: it is not unusual for the executives to make decisions on a change initiative without involving the line managers (or even these managers’ bosses!). On one side, not involving them also at planning stage is a missed opportunity: they are in the best position to provide valuable input on how things work now and on the impact of the proposed change. On the other hand, not involving them up to a very late stage may send a sign that their voice (and work) is not deemed important.
- Increased workload: usually change has to be implemented in addition to the business as usual. Already stretched managers may reach a point of saturation, and resist the change initiative that can be the tipping point. Let’s also consider that change usually has an initial impact on the individuals’ performance, that decreases when people have to learn the new way of doing things. Managers may feel that they will be considered responsible for such loss of productivity.
- Negative impact on their role: many managers think that the change initiative, once implemented, will reduce the impact of their role and – in some cases – that could potentially lead to the loss of their job. There is also an issue relating to status: a detrimental change in their job title or in their position in the organizational structure.
- Impact on their team: if line managers believe that the change initiative will lead to a reduction in their resources (cut in the headcount), they will very likely resist such initiative.
- Past failures: every organization has faced failure when change is implemented. It is not unusual for the executives to be willing to implement the “flavor of the month” just to steer away from this path when something new catches their attention or someone new is appointed in a senior position.
What can an organization do about resistance and remedy these issues? There are several actions that can be taken.
NB: let’s clarify that resistance cannot be erased. You will very likely have some individuals that don’t agree 100% with the change initiative and aren’t fully on board. That’s OK, as long as their conduct is not going to be detrimental and derail the initiative itself. You would have to assess the stakeholders map and the level of influence that the resisting individual has within the organization.
In order to minimize managers’ resistance you can:
A. Involve them in the decision process from the early stages: ask for their point of view, consult with them as subject matter experts. Get out of the mentality that operational activities are not important and that what really matters is the strategy. You need both to be successful at change. Successful executives open a two-way dialogue about the why and the what of change from the outset. Remember: your line managers are your most effective change agents. If they are not on board your initiative will very likely fall flat.
B. Give them suitable tools/resources and enough time: expecting managers to deliver change successfully if they are already super stretched with time and resources is not reasonable. Instead, provide them with the required training to be better leaders, with enough resources (whether financial and human) to fulfill their day to day objectives and achieve the change milestones. It is important to consider their competing priorities and to manage expectations accordingly.
C. Support them from the top: senior executives have to be visible and cooperative. This element goes back to the importance of selecting an effective change sponsor. Line managers to be great change agents need to feel that their voice is heard, that the top management believes in the change initiative and that their efforts are considered important and worthwhile.