line manager resistance

I have been working with a number of organisations going through major transformations. They are all facing a similar issue – line managers are resisting the change.

In all cases there is a compelling reason to change and a reasonable vision of the future. Each organisation has bought in a new CEO to lead the change. These leaders seem committed, experienced, and genuinely interested in making improvements. Importantly, they also seem to be approaching transformation in a sensible manner, in accordance with best practice.

However, in each of these organisations the line managers are unhappy. Their response to the change ranges from disengagement through to wholesale resignations and threats of industrial action.

Why is this happening? And more importantly, how can the line managers be encouraged to play a more constructive part in these transformations?

What should line managers do during change?

There is a lot of research and best practice advice on the role of line managers during change. Most of it includes the following:

  • Line managers are vital for successful organisational change – they are responsible for making the change work in their local area
  • A key role is to act as a role model and coach their staff through the emotional effects of the change
  • They also need to balance business as usual and change activities, communicate effectively with the change team and plan how the change should be implemented in their area

This is practical and sensible advice. So why are these organisations struggling to put it into practice?

The ‘accidental manager’ and change

The Chartered Management Institute has published research stating:

“71% of employers do not train their managers. This results in 2.4 million ‘accidental’ managers promoted into positions of responsibility without being equipped or fully supported”

So basically, we are expecting our line managers to play a vital and complex role in our transitions, without training or supporting them to do so.

The problem isn’t that we don’t know what ‘good’ line management during change looks like. The real issue is that we expect our line managers to do this intuitively, without investment or support. When they don’t, we try to manage their resistance, and refer to them in derogatory terms such as ‘corporate concrete’ or ‘a highly inert blockage’.

If you were a line manager, wouldn’t you resist this approach? I know I would!

Why do line managers resist change?

Through my work with the organisations mentioned above, I have talked to many unhappy line managers. There are two common factors emerging which are causing them to resist the change:

1. The line managers do not understand the nature of transformational change – how it feels and how it will affect them.

They see any of the common effects of a large change, such as delays or changes in plans, as a sign that the change leaders are incompetent. So they have learnt to distrust the leadership team.

2. Line managers don’t know what is expected of them during change – how managing their teams differs during transformation to business as usual.

They are therefore left feeling powerless, undermined and resentful. They have no desire to engage, and little emotional capacity to support their teams through the change.

How can resistance be reduced?

I spent just 45 minutes talking to some unhappy line managers about how transformation really happens. We focused on the inherent messiness and uncertainty found in complex change. This causes the experimentation, amendments and delays the managers were struggling with. The line managers were then able to figure out what aspects of their change were normal. They also began to pinpoint what was working well and where things could be improved.

We then explored the line manager role in change. How it differs from business as usual, and what they could control and influence during the transformation. The line managers realised that they were not powerless – nor were the change leaders expecting them to be. Engagement was being sought by the change leaders, and desired by the line managers. The only thing missing was the knowledge and skills the line managers needed to contribute positively and effectively.

One session made a big difference to how the line managers viewed and acted during the change. It wasn’t a silver bullet – concentrated effort was still needed on both sides to consolidate the line managers’ support and engagement. The change leaders needed to prove they would listen to ideas and feedback and amend their plans accordingly. However, the deadlock of resistance was breaking, giving hope for a more successful future for all involved.

Leadership training is big business – mostly for those at the top of organisations, or cherry-picked as future leaders. I think we need to focus more on upskilling all line managers to work effectively during transformations. A modest investment could have a large impact on the success rates of change.

One Thought on “The real reason line managers resist change”

  • Hello Nicola
    This is brilliant. As an accidental manager myself, I totally agree.
    An issue is many accidental managers are subject matter experts in their field. Once change is introduced they feel that they will become obsolete or feel threatened that their ‘power’ will diminish. Often, these managers are ‘big fish’ in small ponds, with their predecessors being the same.
    To worsen this culture, graduates who join the organisation only have these managers to turn to, to gain knowledge. You can then see the resistance to change slowly embed within the graduates. They then become institutionalised and further resist. Only by implementing a mandatory management programme for all line managers will we see a big impact in several years.

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