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“Stuck in the middle with you” – supporting managers during change

Managing through change with Taylor Clarke
Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash

Like everyone else, I live my life with a constant background soundtrack in my head (…what… not everyone has this??). Throughout the day, phrases used in conversation will result in a different song popping into my head based on hearing a few words or a phrase that connect my brain to song lyrics buried deep in my subconscious.

A recent conversation with a client about the challenges managers (as opposed to senior leaders) face during periods of organisational change, left me with ‘Stuck in the middle with you’ by Stealers Wheel playing on a loop.

The context of the conversation was that managers are often caught (stuck) in the middle between the people affected by change and the senior team determining strategy and timelines.

That can be a difficult place to navigate – and it’s important that leaders consider how they can reduce the pain managers might feel and instead harness the potential that this key role can play in landing the change well.

Trying to make some sense of it all

When looking at change management strategy with clients, I often reference William Bridges’ Transition Model which looks at transition through change as being like crossing a river. To be honest, when I first came across Bridges’ model, I was pretty sceptical – see change as a river for people to cross…. REALLY?? .. surely that’s a bit simplistic….??

…. but the more I explored the model, the more I realised that breaking down the journey (transition) through change into the three zones makes absolute sense – and helps create and frame great conversations about the journey, challenges and emotions of change. The Bridges Model is explored here by my colleague Alistair Brown

I’m definitely an advocate for the Bridges Model now and use it frequently when working with senior teams as they plan and implement change – and I’ll keep to the river analogy as I talk here about the role of managers.

Sometimes, organisations focus the development of change leadership capability on the most senior team. That’s definitely vital - but more often than not, there is not just one boat of people that need to cross the river (skippered by the most senior leader) – but a flotilla of smaller boats (teams) with each small boat being skippered by a manager.

I’m wondering how I’ll get down the stairs…

So, what if there’s not enough attention paid to the needs of the manager? And we leave them wondering what is going on but expect them to manage their team regardless?

Can we really expect the transition to go smoothly? How can managers embrace the change, and play their part supporting their teams as they cross the river if we as leaders don’t invest in their capability – and give them enough information to make sense of it all?

In a previous blog I shared some thoughts on Taylor Clarke’s Releasing Potential in Change model. In my opinion, the role of managers during change is huge – and I think they are key players at a number of steps on the TC model.

Taylor Clarke Releasing Potential Model
Taylor Clarke Releasing Potential Model

Who better to help test the Compelling Purpose message on or to Diagnose the Impact & Readiness of the team? Who is most likely to understand potential challenges that will be raised by team – which can be invaluable in building the communication strategy as leaders look to Mobilise Commitment and Engage Everyone? And who is most likely to be first to see/hear resistance as you look to Embed Behaviours? In my view, it’s the team manager!

So… how can leaders help managers?

Recognising that managers often feel stuck in the middle between strategy and their people is key. And paying attention to the needs of managers during change takes time – but ignoring those needs is more than likely to lead to resistance along the way.

I think any time focussed on supporting managers during change is well spent. Here’s five thoughts for you to consider as you work to support managers who are leading your wider teams:

1) Help managers transition: Understand that the managers may need to start their transition journey earlier than their team to be able to be far enough along their own journey to manage their team effectively during change – so involve managers as early as possible and give them as much information as you can (even if you need to ask them to keep some of it to themselves for now).

2) Reduce Ambiguity: Even if you don’t have all the answers yet, spend time with managers to understand what questions they are trying to answer for their teams – and work with them to agree ‘lines to take’ responses to frequently asked questions. Otherwise, you are asking them to navigate rapids in dense fog… with no map…

3) Create space to catch breath: Make sure your change plan builds in enough ‘islands’ to allow managers to catch their breath (‘islands’ in the Bridges Transition Model are planned stops on the journey to allow people to talk – to reflect – and to share challenges before restarting the journey).

4) Be an authentic leader: Share your own fears about the change/journey – as well as your hopes and vision for the future. And encourage managers to share their fears and hopes openly without fear of being considered negative.

5) Welcome challenges: Managers feeling they are Allowed (see TC model) and encouraged to challenge and ask questions is key – recognising and reflecting on challenges early in the process might just save a load of pain later.

In summing up, I think that if we don’t focus enough attention on the needs of managers during change, helping them manage their teams through change well, then perhaps we, as the leader may fall into the trap of being seen as the “clown to the left” (or perhaps the “joker to the right”)….

Ok, so I might have stretched the connection to the song too far now – but you get the point.

Can Taylor Clarke Help You?

We have been evolving our management of change framework and tool kit to help us work collaboratively with clients. We help client organisations navigate their way through a process which helps identify the changes they want to make, understand the cultural challenges and to be more intentional around how they lead and shape their approach to communicating and embedding those changes.

If you are interested in finding out about how Taylor Clarke can help you plan and/or implement organisational change, or upskills leaders and managers, then please get in touch here or email

Dougie Ritchie

Written by Dougie Ritchie, Principal Consultant

With deep experience gained through many years leading and supporting organisational change impacting global teams, Dougie is also a qualified Prosci Change Management and Agile Project Management Practitioner as well as a qualified Executive Coach. He has worked with senior leaders in both the Private and Public Sectors (including Scottish Government and NDPBs) helping them define and implement their organisational strategy and change management plans.


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