A common question that surfaces in the conversations on organisational development and technology adoption revolves around “how do we get our managers to buy into that change?” or “how do we get them to stop resisting?”.
To begin to address this, it is important to recognise that in our region, many persons see management as the endgame. That is the job position and title to which they aspire – and understandably so. Being in a position to instruct rather than take instructions while receiving a higher salary is never a bad thing. Add to that work that requires you to be out-of-office, having flexible hours and all the accompanying perks (corner office, preferred parking etc.) make it a very attractive proposition. And to many, achieving these demonstrate to us success and progress. And herein lies the problem.
Persons who have attained management positions – through whatever means – have attained a position and the accompanying benefits to which they aspired. That is, the dues have been paid, and now is the time when the striving stops, and these persons can enjoy the benefits of their previous striving. The focus of the manager generally changes from working to attain a position to that of working to maintain the position attained. This means working less, not working more. It means taking it easy, as opposed to taking on more work. Any change would have to be mandated from the top, to drive work, as opposed to voluntarily accepting more work coming up from the line. In this regard, management is seen as a position more that a profession.
Added to the dynamics of management as a position as opposed to a profession, there is the fact that many managers lack an appreciation of what technology can do and is doing to organisations’ performance, and a more fundamental lack of any understanding of technology at all. Knowing the manual systems from every angle over the years of sweat equity is comfortable, and adopting technology is disruptive – it would change the process as well as demand new learnings. Added to this the risks of potential failure – and the implications for the management tenure – means that the costs are just too high.
When the suggestion for technology uptake comes from a person lower in the hierarchy – who may understand the technical functions but not the management expectations (or worse yet may want the management position themselves), we have what can be considered the perfect storm of rejection. Cut to the typical response, “when you are in my position feel free to drive whatever changes you wish to propose. Until then, this is how its going to be.”
How then can a manager’s mindset and attitude be changed? It may seem impossible – moreso after repeated attempts. But here are some ways you can attempt to get managers to change their positions.
- Respect their position. As the saying goes, people at the top didn’t just fall from there. They are there for a reason. If you accept this, you would be able to appreciate there is some competence, reputation or capability that warrants that person in the position they are in.
- Know what the change is really about. Too often advocacy for change is directed towards worker convenience more than it is about performance or productivity. The closer the change can be located to underlying organisation’s performance or competitiveness, the easier the sell is to any manager. Typically, linkage to the strategic plan or other stated intent (such as, for example, shareholder value, brand perception and brand value, operational efficiency or increased responsiveness to customer responsiveness).
- Confidence of the manager has to be earned. If the manager thinks that everyone is out to get them, or is trying to cut them down or get their position, then there would understandably be trust issues involved. The same applies if the manager is insecure in his/her knowledge about technology. In either event, the manager would certainly listen to someone who s/he trusts to seek his/her best interest. If you are the one advocating change, then have you earned that trust or can you do so? If yes, then great. If not, find someone who can. Some persons resort to external help – consultants or other advocates, in order to do so. How it is done is not important, once the trust is established.
- Demonstrate value. As the saying goes, “tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember…” For a manager to accept that what you are proposing is going to be of benefit, its extremely useful to let the manager see what it is and how it works. A working demonstration or a case study can help to show explicitly what is involved and how value is derived from the change being proposed, and more importantly how to sell it upwards.
- Driven from multiple directions. In many instances, there are persons higher up the hierarchy who understand the need for change and are willing to support it. If there is such a person senior to the manager, then they can support by driving change down to the manager, and help ensure the manager engages the change initiative and gets with the program.
- Credit. This is generally the most contentious point. Unpopular opinion: ‘You can be more assured of seeing change happen if you give your manager the credit.’ Why? They would look good, and have others think it was their idea. And some may believe it. But the truth is, his/her superiors know where its at, and what managers are capable of. If ‘their’ idea is good and not characteristic of their contributions, then it must have been fed from someone, somewhere. And a simple request for more detail would tell if its fed internally or from the outside. So, you not only demonstrate you are capable of the ideas, but that you are also focused on the development of the organisation, not personal gain or glory. I personally have experienced situations – repeatedly – where I made my managers look good, virtually cannibalising my ideas, and it wasn’t long before they were working for me. In fact, one called me after I had moved on, and was seeking my assistance in their employment. What?! After I picked up my jaw off the floor, I kindly talking them into the focus they needed.
- Know what makes them tick. Some managers are all about leaving a lasting legacy as a development or change agent. Others are focused on short-term gain, and yet others on enjoying the trappings of position. This typically cross-threads with persons committed to a profession, and such (silly) things as standards and reputation. But beyond the conflict, knowing what makes your manager tick can be used to your advantage. How does your proposed change align with whatever makes the manager tick? Can you present the idea in a way that aligns with their priorities? If so, then you may well find they become your biggest champion and run with the idea – in some cases mobilising resources you never envisioned. This draws upon more leadership and communication skills, but totally worth it.
These are ways you can help to sell change upwards and get your managers to buy into the vision of what you see for the organisation. The point is there are multiple angles and approaches you can explore. And they work… most of the time. Sometimes the obstacle is too great, the idea too transient, the manager too dead-set on work avoidance, or themselves lacking confidence on the persons they report to. In such cases, you may have to work through a different organisation, or work a different idea. But it should be after you are thoroughly satisfied that you have tried all angles available.
In parting, here’s an interesting thought to consider. While many persons see management as the endgame – the position to which they aspire – those who see the management as a profession, and therefore a different game, requiring different skills – end up the most celebrated of management icons. Lou Gerstner, Jack Welsh, Ram Charran, Larry Bossidy, Henry Ford and so on… when they assumed management roles was typically when they faced the most challenging role of their careers. That was when the work started, not ended. Until you share a similar crossroads, everything you experience and experiment with are tools for the journey to a more demanding, and rewarding, future. Happy changing!
Faheem Mohammed is the Managing Director of panCaribbean.org and leads the management and leadership portfolios. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org