Explore the Levels of Change Management

Managing Busy Managers During Projects

Written by Tim Creasey

6 Mins




Consistently, one of the biggest obstacles to change identified by participants in the our Best Practices in Change Management benchmarking study was poor support and alignment with middle management (behind only ineffective sponsorship and resistance from employees). Managers resisted the change and did not effectively support their employees through change. One of the main culprits for this obstacle is the manager dilemma.

The “Manager Dilemma”

The manager dilemma is a result of two forces at work on managers and supervisors during times of organizational change. First, managers and supervisors are themselves being impacted by the change - they must embrace, internalize and adopt the change to their own work. Second, they must support their employees during the change as well, helping them to embrace and adopt the new solution. During changes in the organization, the managers are often wearing both the "agent of change" hat and the "recipient of change" hat. Add to these challenges the fact that middle and front-line managers are critical to sustaining the day-to-day operations of the business and often feel overloaded with that task alone.

This duel role is the manager dilemma. Project teams, support functions (like communication, HR, training and OD groups) and senior leaders often only wear the "agent of change" hat, while front-line employees and those who ultimately adopt the change wear only the "recipient of change" hat. Managers and supervisors wear both hats - the result being that they have the most difficult role in times of change. Unfortunately, their duel role is often overlooked and neglected to the detriment of project and employee well-being.

Why Are Managers So Important in Times of Change?

Managers are critical in times of change because of their proximity to employees. Projects ultimately impact how jobs are done in the organization; and employees are the ones who experience change in their processes, systems, tools, job roles and/or organization structures. The project is only successful if employees can successfully navigate these transitions. And who in the organization is closest to these effected employees? The managers and supervisors throughout your organization.

It is this proximity that led Quy Nguyen Huy to write in his Harvard Business Review article titled, In praise of Middle Managers, "Indeed, middle managers may be corner-office executive's most effective allies when it's time to make a major change" . Huy goes on to define four roles for middle managers in times of change: The Entrepreneur, The Therapist, the Communicator and The Tightrope Artist. Managers are able to fulfill these roles - and the similar roles outlined in Prosci's benchmarking study - because they are close to employees that bring changes to life in the organization.

To take this line of reasoning one step further, consider the numerous roles that were cited for managers in Prosci's 2016 change management study.

  • An employee's manager or supervisor was cited as one of two preferred senders of change messages (along with someone at the top of the organization)
  • The direct supervisor was cited as the most effective provider of reinforcement during change.
  • Involving a supervisor was one of the top tactics for managing resistance.
  • Engaging a supervisor or manager was one of the top suggestions for improving communications.

And while you may have many great managers in your organization, they may have difficulty in time of change. Managing employees through change is in many ways a new competency or skill set that managers and supervisors must build. Don't assume that being a great manager is the same as being a great change manager. It is your (and your organization's) responsibility to help build this key competency with your managers and supervisors.

Tactics for Neutralizing the Manager’s Challenge

Tackling the manager dilemma; managing change with the most resistant group

Managers and supervisors are frequently identified as the most resistant group when changes are introduced. One of the major causes is that many projects and change teams do not treat managers as employees first - people who are being tasked with changing how they do their work as a result of a new project or initiative. To be successful, managers must be supportive of a change before they can take the next step of supporting their people through that very same change.

There are two main tactics for engaging managers and supervisors and building their support for change.

  1. Develop targeted change management plans for manager and supervisors - treat "managers and supervisors" as its own group of impacted employees when you are introducing a change into the organization. Develop specific communications and strategies for this group. Engage this group's managers and supervisors - the managers of the managers - in communicating and coaching activities.
  2. Address the sources of manager resistance - treat manager resistance head on. Begin researching tactics for managing resistance. Also take into account unique sources of resistance for managers and address them. Anticipate resistance from managers and take proactive steps to get them on board.

Finally, keep managers and supervisors a step ahead. If you are asking a group of managers and supervisors to communicate messages to their employees, don't send out the talking points in the morning and expect them to act that afternoon. Give managers and supervisors time to adjust to new information, to work through their own resistance and to embrace the change before you ask them to go to their employees.


Engaging the busiest managers; sharing the role you expect them to play

Managers and supervisors are busy. One of the top reasons that study participants cited for manager resistance was overload with current work responsibilities. They were so consumed with keeping the business running that they didn't have the time to play their role in making changes successful. While this is a valid concern, you can help by making it perfectly clear what role you expect managers and supervisors to play in times of change.

Prosci's 2016 benchmarking study identified five roles that managers and supervisors play in times of change. These five roles, in rank order, are:

  • Role #1: Communicator - Communicate with direct reports about the change
  • Role #2: Advocate - Demonstrate support for the change
  • Role #3: Coach - Coach employees through the change process
  • Role #4: Liaison - Engage with and provide support to the project team
  • Role #5: Resistance manager - Identify and manage resistance

The value here is making the role concrete. It is no longer a fuzzy, mysterious role - managers and supervisors are asked to be communicators, advocates, coaches, liaisons and resistance managers. Five roles that will directly drive successful change.

While tactic two is about sharing the role you expect, you cannot assume that these activities come naturally to anyone with a title of manager. In fact, in many cases these roles involve new skills and competencies. The final tactic is around helping managers and supervisors build these competencies.

Building skills; the path to "leading change" competency

The final tactic is to help managers and supervisors build the skills needed to be great leaders of change. Remember that leading people through change is a new competency for many - even for the best managers in your organization it can be a challenge. "Leading change" must be viewed as and treated as a competency that can be built.

You and your organization are responsible for building this competency in your managers and supervisors. Consider "leading change" as a new competency and offer the training programs your managers need. Provide them with tools for change management designed specifically for managers and supervisors. This means not just sharing a high-level overview of a change management process that will be used by project teams - but getting in the specifics around communicating and coaching employees through change.

The competency to lead people through change will require more than just a training session. Although this is a good start, your managers will need continuous support as they apply the tools and approaches they have learned. It takes time to build the competency, but in the end your managers, their employees and the projects will benefit.

Finally, it is important to share why managers are important and "What's In It For Me?" (or WIIFM) to get managers on board - training is not enough. Senior leaders and your managers' managers will play a key role in getting managers engaged with this new role, especially given their already busy schedules.


For your changes to be successful, you need the active support and participation of managers and supervisors. Their proximity, credibility and authority with front-line employees cannot be overlooked or ignored. The challenge you face is overcoming the manager dilemma - that managers and supervisors are both recipients of and agents of change.

The graph below is an interesting way to view the manager dilemma. Each manager working on a particular change can be plotted along the two axis. The horizontal axis is their support (or lack of support) for the change. The vertical axis is their competency at leading people through change.




  • The top right quadrant is where you need your managers to be for changes to be successful - supportive of the change and able to lead their people through change.
  • If managers are in the top left quadrant, then your efforts need to be focused on getting them on board with the change (since the competency exists).
  • If managers are in the bottom right, then your efforts should be focused on building the competency (since they are already supportive).
  • Managers in the bottom left require the most effort since both the support and competency dimensions need work.

Ask yourself: for the project you are currently supporting, where are your managers? And how will you help them move to the top right quadrant? Consider what a scatter plot of all of your managers might tell you about your required next steps for managing change with this group.

Prosci's Change Management Guide for Managers is a step-by-step process to help managers move to the right and up the graph on the right.



Core Roles in Change Management download article