By Carrie Salters
Freer Consulting Co.
According to John Kotter in Leading Change, “occasionally a brave and competent soul at the middle and lower level in the hierarchy is instrumental in creating the conditions that can support a transformation.”  But how do you empower employees to create these conditions? When I ask employees at client sites, in diverse business sectors, I often hear the same thing: “I just do what I’m told, when I’m told, and that’s that!”
For any organization with a safety, quality, or environmental management system, middle management is key in implementing change; in carrying out the mission, vision, goals, objectives, and targets established by leadership. Kotter suggests that establishing a sense of urgency  is required to create change, but I don’t wholeheartedly agree, as prolonged urgency and unattainable goals can lead to burnout over time. Instead, a combination of factors creates the conditions for success: inspiration, culture, and tools.
- Inspiration – A leader in management who supports the change—someone with enough trust, respect, and moxie to drive the change.
- Culture – A company culture that removes barriers between various levels of management, that encourages ideas and considers all contributions.
- Tools – The methods to contribute ideas and evaluate them (for example, idea boards, meetings, memos, etc.).
Most middle managers are trained in the organizational skills to achieve change: the ability to evaluate goals, objectives, and targets and activate various tasks to achieve them via project management—tasks that tell employees what to do and when to do it. However, these managers often lack moxie; not everyone in middle management has the charisma to drive change, and those who do often seem intimidating and out of reach to employees.
During the process of implementing leadership’s vision, middle managers often come up with, or come across, inventive ideas that could inspire positive changes and improvements. Unfortunately, in companies of all sizes, these ideas are not communicated, overlooked, underestimated, or worst-case scenario, ignored. Even the most organized manager or hard-working employee may not have the confidence to communicate their ideas to a charismatic manager or leader.
Ideas Not Communicated
Issue: Middle management and employees often have great ideas; however, if they aren’t communicated to the next-level manager, and subsequently to the leader driving the change, no one benefits. This lack of communication can often be attributed to an imaginary, but very real wall—when an employee is not comfortable enough to schedule a meeting or knock on the door of management to talk about an idea.
Resolution: Ensure there are routine meetings between the two parties with an open enough agenda to discuss new ideas; place an Idea Board in a common area and require that the manager/leader check the board at least once per week; create an Idea Box to create a more discreet and even anonymous place for employees to communicate their ideas for improvement.
Issue: There are cases when the idea is communicated by an employee to the manager, but it is overlooked by the manager. There are also cases where the manager never makes the time to bring it to the attention of the leader. Often this happens because the tool used for communication is not appropriate or there is not enough perceived time to review the idea.
Resolution: Never communicate important ideas by email. Many middle and upper-level managers receive hundreds of emails a day. For an idea to stand out, take the time to thoughtfully write a one-page memo highlighting the aspects of the change. Put the memo on the manager/leader’s chair, avoiding their Inbox at all costs. Continue with the Idea Board/Box concept but require that managers respond to the (non-anonymous) idea with the employee either by paper or by meeting to discuss the pros and cons of the idea. The idea may not be accepted, but this thoughtful communication promotes a company culture that encourages and values ideas.
Issue: Sometimes ideas look good on paper and are more difficult to implement. Sometimes ideas look bad on paper but are relatively easy to implement. Sometimes ideas look good on paper and are easy to implement. And sometimes ideas look bad on paper and are difficult to implement. Most times you don’t really know until you try.
Resolution: Take the time to thoughtfully consider every idea that comes to the table. Run it through various scenarios. Create a pilot area where it has the highest likelihood for success. Let one person run with it to see what happens. If it is successful, try it in another department or implement it across the board. If it fails, see if the idea can come to fruition with a few adjustments, or accept that it will not work and scrap it. Take the time to put in the effort, and employees will be more likely to contribute ideas in the future.
Problem: The worst possible scenario that can happen when an employee has an idea for improvement is that it is completely ignored. Ignoring ideas, whether good, bad, or indifferent, is a sure-fire way to ensure that employees will not bring ideas to the table again. If even one employee idea is ignored, not only will that employee end up disgruntled, but other employees in that department, and potentially across the company, will invariably believe their ideas will fall on deaf ears. They ultimately won’t voice them in the future. The grapevine is a powerful tool that, if not nurtured, can produce sour grapes.
Resolution: Do not ever completely ignore an employee’s idea.
Each and everyone one of us has control over our time, whether we believe it or not. Prioritize time to review new ideas that promote improvement, however great or small. It will pay off in the long run.
Employees at all levels need to feel empowered. They need to be told to bring ideas to the table, they need to understand that their ideas will be considered, they need to know that effort will be taken to run them to ground, and that they will be not be ignored. Employees are the roots of the vine that help it flourish, the foundation that fuels growth. If they are underfed, the vine will weaken.
It is imperative that leadership creates conditions that empower the brave and competent souls of middle and lower management to succeed and transform the company into a better one, remembering that all it takes are a few sour grapes to ruin a batch of fine wine.
 John P. Kotter, Leading Change. (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), 49.
 John P. Kotter, Leading Change. (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), Chapter 3.