What is the role of Middle Managers in strengthening Organizational Culture? Part III

What is the role of Middle Managers in strengthening Organizational Culture? Part III

In this part we analyze the role of middle managers related to culture change. It should be noted that a corporate culture is not normally changed by a simple desire for changing it, as Schein states, the change of organizational culture is rarely the primary goal[1].  Change often occurs because leaders perceive some problems that need to be resolved or they identify new goals that need to be met. Thus, when trying to implement an organizational change, it is firstly necessary to determine if a culture change is needed and to establish how to generate such a change. We must not forget that organizational culture is a foundation that sustains what employees do in their jobs, how they treat each other, and how they got successful. Therefore, one must be careful to analyze and understand the processes for organizational change and their relation to culture change. Frequently, we observe that many companies fail when changing their culture and that happens, as Schneider points out, because they focus on the artifacts of culture[2]: facade, interior design, dress or uniforms, creeds and slogans, technology, etc., as if changing these tangible elements will change the organizational culture. Some organizations promote a cultural change through interesting speeches, new policies or rules, and a communicational program. They do not take into account the real nature of organizational culture, so they do not focus on changing attitudes and behaviors rightly, which requires to understanding and balancing the different human dimensions within the organization.

Undoubtedly, we are currently experiencing technological changes that have a great impact on organizational functioning. For example, digital technology is an important factor now that needs to be analyzed from the deepest convictions of people and learn how to apply it in each organizational context. If not, it can cause serious problems for implementing in a superficial way, without understanding employees’ beliefs and attitudes. Therefore, to changing the ways of planning, organizing and managing the company, first it is necessary to change the ideas and beliefs that have produced the current organizational environment. It is relevant what Morgan affirms that culture change is a challenge of transforming the mind-sets, visions, paradigms, images, beliefs and shared meanings that sustain existing business realities and of creating a detailed language and code of behavior through which the desired new reality can be lived on a daily basis[3].

It is unquestionably a challenge throughout the company, because despite the undoubted influence of leadership from top level for changing culture, that influence is not enough to make the change. It requires commitment of leaders in every level and area of the organization, and especially those who lead at the middle level. Hence, we ask a key question: who should promote a culture change and how? And what is the role of middle managers about that issue?

As we have indicated in previous article, the founder plays an essential role in the development of organizational culture. Then, as the company goes through different stages in its life cycle, others leaders appear and assume influential role in the culture evolution. Here is another important question to consider: what cultural elements should change and what should not change? It is relevant to remember that a fundamental characteristic of culture is to provide stability for organizational members. So, the more stable and solid an organizational culture is, the more difficult to manage a culture change. At the same time, we have to consider that culture is in a permanent dynamic process as the company faces different situations and the stages mentioned above.

Schein describes the following stages that organizations experience[4]: a) founding and early growth, in which the founder is who defines the company and develops the culture, so cultural elements are learned by employees to achieving stability and security, b) midlife, in which cultural values and beliefs are rooted within the organization, however as the founder is retired or even the founder being present, those values and convictions can be weakened by new challenges that the company faces, and disorientation and conflicts that could be generated by new executives that try to cause some impact and produce changes, c) maturity and decline, here the cultural change is more difficult as values and convictions are very solid, but also new values and ideals are adopted that are not aligned with those solid values. This situation reflects how the organization really operates and the values that top management says that guide the company. Frequently here we can see a gap between them. Thus, an organization is likely to decline if it fails to adapt to a changing environment.

The cultural influence comes from the founders during the foundation and they try to distinguish their company from competitors. Founders normally are looking for executives who share the same vision and philosophy that they are fostering within the organization. During the growth, the organization is structured through smaller units that begin to forge the culture with its own leaders. The differentiation among these units is basically due to: occupation, function, geographic location, type of product and/or market or technology, hierarchical level. Thus, sub-cultures are generated in each unit or area of the company. When the founder retires there are two options for the succession: to choose an insider or an outsider. It is a crucial process that needs to be managed carefully in order to care the organizational culture and for avoiding negative reactions from employees. The main goal through this process must be to take special care about the cultural elements that promote the distinctive organizational capacity and employees’ identification. The achievement of this goal is likely to be more viable through someone from the inside because he/she understands the internal cultural issues. This situation arises normally during the midlife stage in which several difficulties arise. At this stage various sub-cultures have been formed in the different units or organizational areas and employees within them behave according to their own convictions derived essentially from their occupation and education. As the founder had great influence on the creation and early growth, similarly occurs within each unit in which the leader influences with his/her convictions and values, but in a smaller environment. Therefore, leadership is a key factor that exerts a relevant influence on the beginning of any group process, and it is crucial for culture change and development.

The role of middle managers in this hard task for culture change begins in the foundation when they are strongly aligned with the vision, beliefs and values promoted by the founder. Thus, they show a strong involvement with him and his particular way of thinking to running the company. In early growth and through the success that the company is obtaining, the cultural elements experienced by them are rooted. In this stage different units are created and middle managers that are in charge of them use to maintain the cultural values and convictions. It is in the midlife of the company that middle managers assume a key role when the company faces new challenges and problems and a change is needed to remain successful. An option to promote an organizational change is through the reference and support from a particular sub-culture. Obviously, top management must determine what a sub-culture can facilitate the organizational culture change or development. In order to do this, some middle managers from the chosen sub-culture can be promoted to the top management. The advantage of this option is that these middle managers know well the existing culture and have assimilated the founders’ values and convictions, so they can better understand which cultural elements should be changed and which should not. It is very important as organizational changes bring ambiguity and uncertainty, and if valuable elements for employees are eliminated, it can produce greater barriers and resistances through this delicate process. Culture change is not an issue that can be managed mechanically and simplistically, rather it is a complex human dimension that requires a clear understanding about its deepest roots and the various factors related to them that are influencing the different employees’ behaviors and manifestations. In this issue the role of middle managers is very useful.

Although another option is to choose an outsider for assuming the organizational change and with that the cultural change that is required, we agree with Schein who affirms that although this executive can have the right values and convictions, he usually lacks a clear and complete understanding of the organizational culture, which is a critical issue to implement the changes needed[5]. Therefore, the relationship between top managers and middle managers is fundamental, because to the extent that middle managers have assimilated the current organizational culture and also have developed the right competencies to face the new problems arising, then the changes needed and culture change for that purpose will be more viable. Middle managers promoted within the organization for this reason must exert a consistent and attractive leadership in order to influence positively to other organizational areas or units. This way they will be ready to enable their colleagues, now subordinates, to align with the changes needed. The type of leadership that they exert will be a crucial factor. In the literature, culture change has been associated with types of charismatic and transformational leadership, however it is also necessary to be aware about the limitations that they have. To us, the leadership that can most likely contribute to culture change is one that understands really the cultural elements that affect both the strategic and operational capacity of the organization, and its identity. This type of leadership must be consistent in its behavior and know how to relate the organizational dimensions that allow the company to operate effectively and efficiently. It is not really necessary a charismatic leadership if the company has an authentic leadership rightly oriented to achieve a convenient transformation with a clear understanding about the human reality and its identity within the organization.

If an outsider assumes the role of CEO, one of his first challenges will be to establish a close relationship based on trust with middle managers that are leading the different units, in which a sub-culture has been created. It will be fundamental to implement new strategies and policies at different organizational levels. Thus, it will be viable to consolidate the new paradigms and values that support the new way of functioning of the company. This effort must be, at the same time, in coherence with cultural elements that should not change, especially those values and convictions that employees embrace and therefore should be maintained with some renovation. This task is more complex for a new CEO who does not come from inside, and if he does not have the support from leaders at the middle level that understand and want to implement the change that he is proposing, this goal will not be achieved.

Whether a middle manager is promoted to CEO or an outsider is going to assume this position in order to carry out the changes needed, the truth is that he will be in the hands of middle managers who lead each organizational unit. The middle managers’ convictions and the way that they use to align the sub-culture of each unit to the cultural changes of the organization will be the key factors. Thus, there are studies that indicate that CEO has a clear influence in this process, but this is restricted. A factor, among several that restricts this influence is the stage in the life cycle of the organization, because as it has been seen it is in the midlife that cultural elements are rooted and if CEO does not know how to decipher and interpret them, he will have serious problems. In order to handle this situation successfully CEO requires a real and convinced participation of leaders at middle level. The main goal to carry out cultural changes must be the need to adapt the company to new scenarios in order to maintain or increase its effectiveness. To do that without this orientation makes little sense. At the same time, cultural changes must be done without losing essential values and convictions that were fostering the organization’s functioning and the authentic employees’ behaviors. Then, it is crucial that leaders at the top and at the middle level should understand the real situation of the organization about: its strategic dimension which faces the external environment, the internal atmosphere and how it is manifesting, and its identity that has been consolidated. For this purpose it is an imperative the preparation of middle managers as creators of sub-cultures in each unit, and the guidance and support that they receive from top managers. A healthy practice will be to forge an alignment and integration of all the sub-cultures according to the new cultural elements which will strengthen the organizational culture. However, it is not a simple task that requires a consistent leadership at the middle level in order to know how to manage employees’ resistance, especially in the maturity stage, where the roots are much stronger and it is not easy that employees discharge the old paradigms and learn new values. Nevertheless, if bosses in each unit, each sub-culture, receive sufficient support, guidance and training, it will be feasible to implement the changes needed, as they are the main influencers in each group of employees and they know better than anyone which elements must be changed and which not.

Top management is in charge to propose the organizational changes, specifically the CEO, but he cannot make it really happens without the support from middle managers in each organizational unit. Every middle manager who leads every unit is the one who influences employees to carry out the changes within his group. The more strong relationship between top and middle managers the more probability to implement organizational changes successfully, taking care of the different cultural elements that must remain and renewing or discarding those that should not remain. The organizational change must be fostered in order to maintain the organizational effectiveness and it requires to identifying those cultural elements that need some change. Only leaders who learn how to identify the relationship between organizational culture and each sub-culture, and understand the cultural elements that influence the organizational effectiveness can become effective agents for changing within their unit and the organization as a whole. The                       main role of middle managers as leaders in each unit is to be a model of reference about the new attitudes and specific behaviors that are needed for the organizational change, but also to become a coach for orienting employees in a convenient way. This role will be easy in early growth, but it will require a greater effort in the midlife, and it will be harder, undoubtedly, in the maturity stage of the organization when it will be necessary a high level of dedication, patience and perseverance. The question is: how organizations are preparing their middle managers as models for organizational and cultural changes?

[1] Schein, E. 2010

[2] Ehrhart, M., Schneider, B., and Macey, W., 2013

[3] Morgan, G., 2006

[4] Schein, E., 2010

[5] Schein, E., 2010