It’s been said organizational change tends to die in middle management. Executives, often the originators of change, are committed to seeing it through. Employees on the front line may even see the benefits of change. Managers in between may even claim to be on board, but still change falters. Why?
Because when a manager expects his or her employees will be uncomfortable, disappointed, frustrated or any other negative emotion with the change, it’s really easy for them to deflect the cause of that pain to someone else — you.
When they communicate the change to their employees, they may couch it by saying things like:
“Don’t shoot the messenger.”
“I know this sucks, but don’t blame me. It’s [your department here]’s project.”
“You’re not going to believe what corporate wants us to do now.”
It’s like they’re playing Good Cop/Bad Cop. They get to be the Good Cop who claims to be on their employees’ side against you, the Bad Cop.
On one hand, it seems like it might work. Managers build camaraderie with their employees, and the change still moves forward because the managers claim they have no choice. It’s a win-win scenario, right?
Wrong! How much better would it be if those managers made the case for change with their employees? What if, instead of reluctantly accepting the change from an outside source, they demonstrated commitment to implementing the initiative because they were involved and believed in it too? What if, instead of deflecting blame for the anticipated negative emotions, they supported employees and helped them work through it? What if they communicated the change initiative not as yours but as ours?
But instead, if managers don’t own the change to their employees, they send the message that they don’t support it. They’re only doing it because they have to. There’s no room for excitement or engagement. No reason to be proactive or get involved. Change is being done to them. All employees can do is grudgingly comply.
So if you assume that the message of change will be enthusiastically passed on by all managers to their employees, watch out. Managers who aren’t fully committed to the change themselves, and those who would rather not be seen as the source of discomfort have an easy way out. They’ll make you the Bad Guy and convince themselves it’s ok because they’ve communicated the change.
If you hear a manager use you as the Bad Guy to his or her employees, even as a joke, have a conversation to point out how that impacts employees’ perceptions of the change. Dig deeper to understand how they feel about the change and to see if they might need training or support for giving employees what may seem like bad news.
And set the expectation when you roll out communication that you and others should not be accused as the source of the change, but instead provide the tools and demonstrate what it means for each manager to claim the change as their own.