Friday, 7 October 2011

Managers in the middle shape change their own way

The middle child can be an awkward position in a family, and this is just as true in the workplace. Middle management juggle responsibilities to their reports and their managers, a feat trickiest when leadership decide that the organisation needs to change. Do they dutifully implement the bosses' plans, or cling to the manageable status quo? A recent qualitative study suggests this group take a third role, of ambivalent change agents.

Edel Conway and Kathy Monks of Dublin City University conducted interviews in the Irish Health Service, a 93,000-strong organisation, then undergoing a large top-down change. They asked 23 middle managers to talk about a major change event that they had experienced recently; around half chose the top-down strategic initiative while the others recounted a change they themselves had initiated.

The strategic initiative came in for criticism, with middle managers quick to point out issues like increases in workload, uncertainty about direction of travel, and a lack of ownership. Yet the same cohort were enthusiastic when discussing their own change ideas. They revealed a set of pragmatic tactics, such as beginning with a small number of enthusiastic staff as a catalyst within their department. They understood the importance of communications, reflecting the frustrations they felt when they were left in the dark. The general philosophy was noted by one participant:
I think the difference was that we said "we have an idea, can we talk to you about how it might work" Whereas with the other [top-down] one, it is: “we have an idea and this is how it is going to work.”
Some of this may simply reflect a tendency to prefer our own ideas to those imposed on us. But it certainly contests the idea that middle management are simply resistant to change. Through the nature of their in-between position in the organisation, Conway and Monks see them as ambivalent agents, able to see the many facets of a process of change, critiquing problematic ones and finding concrete ways to realise others.

The authors note that middle manager initiatives “were in many cases providing the solutions that the top-down change was intended to enforce: reductions in waiting lists, improvements in patient care.” And they warn that though the middle manager layer is a tempting target for reducing salary costs in pinched public services “wholesale elimination of such positions may have negative repercussions for the success of change initiatives.”

ResearchBlogging.orgConway, E., & Monks, K. (2011). Change from below: the role of middle managers in mediating paradoxical change Human Resource Management Journal, 21 (2), 190-203 DOI: 10.1111/j.1748-8583.2010.00135.x

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