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In times of change, managers and supervisors can be both the greatest ally and the greatest obstacle for change teams. They are the closest to the employees who must adopt the new processes and behaviors associated with a project or initiative. In many cases, the work of managers and supervisors will also be impacted by a project. Getting managers and supervisors on board and taking the lead in supporting employee change is crucial.

Importance of Managers During Change

In the 2009 edition of Best Practices in Change Management, participants rated how important they felt manager and supervisor involvement was to the success of their project. Nearly half of participants ranked manager and supervisor involvement as “extremely important,” with another one-third citing “very important.” In fact, in Best Practices in Change Management - 2016 Edition, participants identified engagement with and support from middle management as a top contributor to change management success.

How important was manager and supervisor involvement to the success of your project?

Managers and supervisors are so crucial because of the relationship they have with the employees in the organization. The importance of managers and supervisors in times of change is undeniable, but what does this group really need to be doing to drive successful change?

The Five Roles of Managers and Supervisors

Participants in Prosci’s benchmarking research have identified five roles that managers and supervisors must play in times of change:

  • Communicator: Communicate with direct reports about the change
  • Advocate: Demonstrate support for the change
  • Coach: Coach employees through the change process
  • Liaison: Engage with and provide support to the project team
  • Resistance manager: Identify and manage resistance

1. Communicator About the Change

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. The answers to the following questions are best delivered by an employee’s immediate manager:

  • What does this change mean to me?
  • What's in it for me?
  • Why should I get on board? 
  • Why are we doing this? 

The change management team needs to provide talking points and pertinent information, but those messages should ultimately be delivered to employees by their supervisor.

2.  Advocate for the Change

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 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. The key here is this: managers and supervisors must first be onboard with a change before they can support their employees. A change management team should create targeted and customized tactics for engaging and managing the change first with managers and supervisors, and only then charge this important group with leading change with their direct reports.

3. Coach for Employees

The role of coach involves supporting employees through the process of change they experience when projects and initiatives impact their day-to-day work. Prosci's 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
  • 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 to the Project Team

Managers and supervisors liaise between their employees and the project team, providing 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 source 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. They can use the ADKAR model to hone in on which element of the change process is driving resistance and address it accordingly.

How Effective Are Managers and Supervisors?

Participants in the Best Practices in Change Management - 2016 Edition ranked their managers and supervisors in terms of how well they were fulfilling the five roles listed above. For each role, participants ranked managers and supervisors on a scale from "completely ineffective" to "extremely effective." The graph below shows the percentage of participants ranking their managers and supervisors as "ineffective" or "completely ineffective." From the data, it is easy to see that managers are struggling the most with fulfilling the coach and the resistance manager roles.

The roles of coach and resistance manager represent the biggest departure for many managers from the role they have historically played in the organization. The other three roles are more aligned with what a manager has done in the past, but effectively coaching employees through a change and identifying and managing resistance to change require a new set of skills. Many times, great managers have difficulty when tasked with becoming great managers of change because they have not been adequately prepared to do so.

manager and supervisor role fulfillment graph

Training for managers and supervisors

Participants in the 2013 research study indicated whether or not they provided formal change management training to managers and supervisors. In the 2011 study only 23% of participants trained this crucial group, and in the 2013 study this number increased to 40% (see the graph below).

Did you provide formal change management training to your managers and supervisors?

The finding above should set off a warning for many change managers and business leaders. While managers and supervisors are identified as a critical success factor in times of change, they are not being adequately prepared to fulfill the roles identified in the research. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Have we told managers and supervisors what we expect from them in times of change?
  • Do they fully understand the specific actions and behaviors we need from them to support a change effort?
  • Have we provided them with the skills and tools to be successful at leading their direct reports through change?

If you answer "no," then you risk losing the support and benefit that comes from engaging this important cog in the change management system. Consider how you can build awareness of the need for managers to play their important role in times of change, and how you can engage them in learning skills and frameworks for helping themselves and their employees successfully through transitions.

change management process for managers