In the 12th edition of Prosci’s Best Practices in Change Management, released this year, engagement with people managers continued to rank among the top contributors to successful organisational change outcomes.
Actively engaging people managers throughout the change process, building strong support and capability in people managers to act as custodians of the change process, involving people managers early and consistently about changes and securing support from executive sponsors and senior leaders in this, and establishing clear roles and responsibilities for people managers in relation to change management and project management activities remain critical not just to great organisational change outcomes, but also to having a supportive, engaged and fulfilled cadre of people managers, and next-generation leaders, across our organisations.
I have been a people manager for over 35 years and, as many of you who have attended Prosci programmes I have led will have heard me say, my change management “lightbulb” moment came about 25 years ago when I realised just how critical people managers were to organisational change success. I’m not sure why this realisation came to me after a decade of managing teams through some pretty challenging changes, but it did.
Most of us are still working in something akin to an organisational hierarchy, though I acknowledge the prevalence of matrix working within those often looser hierarchies. My manager is close to me, often my mainstay and anchor in a fast-changing professional world and certainly one of the first people I turn to for information and detail about organisational changes and how they will affect me and my role. People managers operate across that interface between senior leadership and front line staff, making sense for their team members of strategic direction, prioritising competing imperatives, acting as a sounding board for team feedback, taking the brunt of any resistance to the change, and all the while endeavouring to understand and reconcile themselves with each change; yes, the changes invariably impact the manager too.
With this wealth of experience at my fingertips, here are my top three tips for preparing people managers for their role at times of organisational change (so pretty much all the time then…)
1. Invest in ensuring people managers understand this is a role they have to fulfil
I recall a conversation with a new promoted change portfolio leader at one of my customer organisations in 2016 who sought me out, head in hands, at the end of a three-day Prosci Change Practitioner Certification programme. “Oh no!” were her opening words. She then recounted how she had successfully bid for resources to hire 10 contract change managers to “do” the change management across her portfolio because the people managers were too busy to get involved.
During our three days together she had come to realise that some degree of involvement, and dare we say ownership, by the people managers was imperative. The change management “hired guns” would be fantastic enablers, drafters, planners, supporters and advisers, but they would lack the relationships, history and trust, to replace the people managers and the unique position they held.
I am bold in this assertion, and make no apology for my boldness: for me, managing team members through change is a critical and core role of people managers. It sits at the same level of priority and importance as managing team member performance. We invest significant resources in ensuring new people managers understand their roles as performance managers, in having important and occasionally challenging conversations with team members, but often we do not highlight managing team members through change as part and parcel of this.
My first tip would be to bring this into the recruitment, promotion and onboarding conversation; let us increase the awareness that managing their people through change is a large part of the job.
2. Invest in training and mentoring people managers successfully to take their teams through change
My second tip is a natural progression from my first: once we have made the managers aware that this is part of their role, let us invest in education and ongoing support so they can fulfil that element of their role. I am in the privileged position of delivering the full suite of Prosci change management programmes, somewhere in the region of a dozen tailored interventions.
This means I engage the employees, and their leaders and managers, the length and breadth of organisations. Without doubt, the programme that has the most profound, thought-provoking and long-lasting impact is the one-day programme designed for people managers, “Leading Your Team Through Change”. Why is it so impactful? It is simple really: it explains to people managers the critical nature of their role in change, it backs this up with world-leading research, it suggests tactics for the managers to adopt to successfully fulfil this role and it allows space for them to discuss and challenge. Critically, it also recognises that the manager is highly likely to be feeling resistance to this element of their role.
A one-day development programme is good, but is just a first step. Investing in ongoing coaching and mentoring for those managers is critical for the transformation we are looking for them to make. The one-to-one coaching, sometimes mentoring, sessions I hold with managers are the most challenging, personally satisfying and customer value-adding work I get to do.
3. Let managers know what's happening
I do recognise that from time-to-time there will be sensitivities around changes that need to be carefully managed; indeed, employment protection and commercial regulations occasionally mean we cannot brief managers on aspects of forthcomings change. I also recognised that more often there are handling decisions taken around release of information about changes based on trust: we have decided not to brief managers on this aspect of a forthcoming change because we do not trust the managers with that information. Both of these conditions present challenges.
For changes where we control the choice of what we communicate to managers and when, my third tip would be to communicate with people managers early and as fully as possible. It is an invidious position to put a people manager in to expect them to take an active role in leading the team through the change, but hold back the information they need to make a success of managing the team through the change.
I am not naïve: from the timeline you can glean from my second paragraph above, I have been working in and around this space for decades, so I am fully cognizant of the risks - leaks, rumour, unrest, reputation hit - leaders run when briefing managers early about the details of a change. What I have observed over the years is that the risk/reward balance often benefits the leader who has taken the managers into confidence and enabled them to wrap their heads (and hearts) around the change before they are expected to take their team members through that change. It is certainly a decision I encourage change leaders and sponsor to evaluate, and to continue to re-evaluate throughout the lifecycle of a change.
If I had longer, other tips I would explore with you include facilitating peer support networks – safe space – for managers to discuss their concerns about their role in managing their teams through change and their concerns with aspects of specific changes.
I would also want to unpack how powerful if is for managers to have well-respected role models and how we can enable that role-modelling, and how we recognise and reward people managers for fulfilling well the change management element of their jobs. But I’ve run out of space, so I will draw things to a close here, but if you have any comments on my top three tips, or others you want to share, I would encourage you to do so here; we can all learn from each other.
How can you learn more?
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