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The Battle of Wills

Can you imagine a change where a project team has been put in place to drive process and culture, the staff are showing an interest in what the change is about and what it will bring, but the managers aren’t interstellar at best and totally against it at worst? It’s not that hard to imagine because you can see it all the time in large organisations and many of you will have lived through it.

In most culture change I rely on the managers as being the main drivers of change, the communicators of the changes and the removers of obstacles that fall in the way. After all, they have the authority to make changes and are there on the ground, day by day to coach and support their staff. The main task for the change agent is the alignment of the managers to what the change is, what that means and what is required of everyone. If they are not aligned they pull different ways and change crumbles. But if the only thing that they are aligned to is that they don’t want change, what can you do?

For those in the project team, this can be a major challenge. What do you do when every conversation is pushed back, no manager gives your Comms the support it needs and every decision is litigated to death in the hope that you go away?

DIY Comms
If the manager isn’t engaging their staff in the Comms then a vital part of culture change is being missed. Project teams often resort to communicating direct with staff, but all that ensures is that the ‘are they getting the information?’ box can be ticked. The key to comms is two way and the discussion to get understanding of what and why. This dialogue deals with fears and concerns too so if its missing the project can develop unnecessary resistance and stress. Reluctant Managers can then say ‘look how you are stressing out my people, we need to kill this project’. So you need those opportunities for dialogue.

Stepping in
Some project teams respond by taking over the managers role more and more. As the manager ignores them they in turn begin to ignore the manager and go direct to the staff that are showing an interest and working with them. In the short term this may appear to work, but in the long term there is a risk because the project team can’t take over all aspects of the managers role in full and forever. In addition the manager can then make the case that they are being bypassed and the mood of the staff can swing against the project.

The other route is to spend more time with the manager trying to sway them. Of course the project team will believe strongly in the project (how could they not) and this often ends up as a series of heated arguments where two ‘world views’ clash. This can damage the project as any moral high ground is lost. The manager will be dealing with their own fears and concerns and they too need help to align and engage and this is often forgotten (they are a manager what do they have to worry about?). Managers risk a lot in change as the basis for their positional power is often taken away, knowledge that keeps them in the expert position is also rendered useless when process is totally overhauled. So the conversation of project roll out ‘right or wrong’ isn’t what they need either.

Let them fail
One approach can be to let the manager fail by leaving them to it. Staff will shout out and demand more from their manager and someone senior will step in and make the manager do their job. Well that’s the theory, but staff tend to stoically accept theirmanagers deficiency and the ‘there goes another failed initiative’ syndrome sets in. And of course the manager will not fail, the project will.


The natural tendency when you see a gap is to fill a gap. For project teams, when that gap is a manager then frustration that the manager ‘isn’t doing their job’ can mean that steps are taken for the right reason, with the wrong outcomes. Whilst leaving the manager to it, doesn’t work, stepping in as above doesn’t either.
Instead adjust your approach to get alongside the manager as much as you can. Offer to attend some of their team meetings or host discussion sessions with their teams as a partner. Their weakness in the Comms area may be lack comfort as opposed to a deliberate attempt to trip up the project. Spend time with them and listen out for their personal concerns and worries and where you can help them (and listening is often enough). Do what you can to make them look good in front of their staff. Moderate your processes if accepting their suggestions to do so moves things along at little cost to you. Don’t fight over right or wrong, don’t get stuck in a battle over the perfect roll out that took you months to design. Keep in mind that the project can live and die on how you handle the receiving managers.

So take a lesson from trees and bend with the wind rather than battle it.

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