Explore the Levels of Change Management

Why you need to start leveraging front-line managers

Written by Tim Creasey

4 Mins


Managers and supervisors are crucial allies in times of change management. This group fulfills one of the two "employee-facing" roles in change management, directly engaging employees who are being impacted by a project or initiative. Unfortunately, this key group is often overlooked on a number of dimensions. This tutorial presents why this group is so important, the roles they are expected to play in times of change and two potential ways they are overlooked in times of change.

Why They Are Important

Managers and supervisors are critically important in times of change for three reasons:

  • Proximity and relationships - A project or initiative will ultimately require some employees to change how they do their jobs, whether it is through new processes, new tools, new systems or new behaviors. It is your managers and supervisors in the organization who are closest to the employees who must embrace and adopt a solution for the project or initiative to be successful. "Closeness" to the ultimately impacted employees occurs on a number of dimensions - from geographic proximity, to reporting structure, to relationships.

  • Leveraging effect - Many change management practitioners have asked the question: "If a change is only successful if it is managed at the individual level, and my project impacts thousands of employees, how am I supposed to manage all of the individual changes?" The answer is: you, as the change management practitioner, do not. You do not have the relationships nor the bandwidth to manage all of the individual transitions. Effectively managing these numerous individual transitions is the responsibilities of managers and supervisors. By working through managers and supervisors, change management practitioners can leverage their work and impact.

  • Dual role as a recipient and an agent of change - Most projects and initiatives impact managers and supervisors in two ways: 1) the project or initiative impacts how the managers or supervisors do their job, so they too must adopt the change, and 2) their direct reports must adopt the change, so managers and supervisors act as an "agent" of change. Managers and supervisors must first go through a successful change journey themselves before they can support their direct reports through the change. This dual role creates a dilemma and should be addressed directly by change management practitioners.

Their Role in Times of Change

Prosci's benchmarking research identified five main roles for managers and supervisors in times of change.

  1. Communicator - Employees want to hear change messages about how their work and their team will be affected by a change from the person they report to. An employee's supervisor is a key conduit of information about the organization, the work that is done and changes to that work resulting from projects and initiatives.
  2. Advocate - Employees look to their supervisors not only for direct communication messages about a change, but also to evaluate their level of support for the change effort. If a manager only passively supports or even actively resists a change, then you can expect the same from that person's direct reports. Managers and supervisors need to demonstrate their support in active and observable ways.
  3. Coach - The role of coach involves supporting employees through the process of change they experience when projects and initiatives impact their day-to-day work. The Prosci ADKAR® Model describes this individual change process as five building blocks of successful change: Awareness of the need for change, Desire to participate and support the change, Knowledge on how to change, Ability to implement required skills and behaviors and Reinforcement to sustain the change. Because of their relationship, managers and supervisors can coach individual employees through this change process and help them address the barrier points that are inhibiting successful change.
  4. Liaison - This role involves interacting with the project team. As the liaison, managers and supervisors provide information from the team to their direct reports. But perhaps more importantly, they provide information about the project from their employees back up to the project team. Managers are in the best position to provide design input, usability results and employee feedback on particular aspects of the solution back to the project team.
  5. Resistance manager - No one is closer to a resistant employee than his or her supervisor. In terms of managing resistance, managers and supervisors are in the best place to identify what resistance looks like, where it is coming from and the root cause of that resistance. They are also the best suited - when provided with the training and tools to do so - to actively manage that resistance when it occurs.

How These Allies Are Neglected

Although the case is quite clear for why managers and supervisors are so important in times of change and the research clearly identifies the roles they need to fulfill, this group tends to be neglected during projects and initiatives. The neglect of this group occurs along two dimensions:

  • Change management practitioners do not acknowledge the unique changes that this group will have to undergo, and thus do not properly address specific and targeted change management plans for this unique "audience".

  • This group is not being provided with the unique competencies, skills, training and tools they need to fulfill the new role of leading direct reports through a change process.

Overlooked: as a unique "audience" for change management planning

Below is some preliminary data from Prosci's 2011 change management benchmarking study.

tutorial-who-does-cm-mod3-resist-graph.gif650 participants from around the world provided data for this study. The graph below show the responses for the question: "From which group did you see the most resistance to the initiative?" Over half of the study respondents (53%) identified middle level managers and front-line supervisors as the most resistant.

This group tends to be the most resistant because they are not treated as a unique group experiencing the change. Resistance from managers and supervisors is rarely tied to the change itself, but rather to the change being poorly managed. Because of their dual role in change, managers and supervisors must be a focus of change management efforts. Below are several examples of addressing managers and supervisors directly in change management planning:

  • Managers and supervisors should be a unique group segmented with targeted communication efforts
  • Managers and supervisors should be a unique group addressed with proactive resistance management plans
  • Managers and supervisors should be targeted with specific sponsor activities
  • Managers and supervisors should have specific reinforcement and recognition mechanisms
  • Managers and supervisors should be given the time to process information before conveying it to employees

Overlooked: the unique competencies they need to lead change

Leading direct reports through change is different than managing ongoing operations. Many of the best managers in your organization struggle when it comes to leading their team through change. This is not a project or initiative specific problem - it is an organizational or systemic issue of not providing the necessary skills, training and tools that managers and supervisors need to become great leaders of change. In Prosci's 2009 benchmarking report, only 40% of participants said they provided change management training to their managers and supervisors.

Below is preliminary data from Prosci's 2011 benchmarking study where participants evaluated how well their organizations were preparing managers and supervisors to lead change. Just over one quarter of participants (28%) strongly agreed or agreed with the statement about adequate preparation, while 69% disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Preparation Graph


Identifying and managing resistance, coaching direct reports through change and being an effective advocate of change requires competencies that are not always present with managers and supervisors, but can be built with effective training and tools designed for this group.



Managers and supervisors are crucial allies that are unfortunately neglected in times of change. Because of their proximity and relationships, they are in a unique role to support change adoption by front-line employees. Unfortunately, this group is often neglected - not being a focus of change management activities and not being provided the skills and tools they need. To effectively leverage the work and impact of change management, managers and supervisors need more attention.

Core Roles in Change Management download article