Why Do Middle Managers Obstruct CX Progress?

Customer experience transformation requires a lot of change. But organizations don’t change very easily. Every customer experience journey faces a myriad of resistance in support of the status quo. This isn’t new insight; take a look at some well-aged wisdom:

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” -Martin Luter King, Jr.

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” -Niccolo Machiavelli

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” -John Kenneth Galbraith

While change is a struggle, it seems to be particularly difficult within one strata of the organization, middle managers. As you can see in the chart below with feedback from 249 large companies, middle managers are the weak link in customer experience efforts, a problem that worsens in larger companies. While front-line employees are seen as the most supportive of change, their supervisors and managers appear to be the largest obstacles. What’s going on here?

1212MiddleManagers2This is not an issue with middle managers, but with the environment in which they work. What turns middle managers into the key barrier to improved customer experience?

It comes down to the 5th law of The Six Laws of Customer Experienceemployees do what is measured, incented, and celebrated. When change happens, middle managers get caught in between the aspirations for the future and the structures of the past.

Why does this situation affect middle managers the most? Senior leaders can embrace change quite easily by proclaiming what they want, which only takes a few changes to Powerpoint and a handful of meetings and emails. Front-line employees understand what customers are going through, so they are easy to get on-board with changes that will help. But middle managers don’t have that luxury. Even if they completely buy into the change, middle managers get stuck with delivering on the sales, productivity, and profitability measurements in the current plan.

Leaders may say they want change, but they don’t abandon existing business goals. This leaves middle managers operating in an environment where they get pushed to change how their people operate, but they get penalized when they don’t meet historical goals. Most of the measurements, incentives, and celebrations support the old way of working — and middle managers are the most held accountable for them.

For customer experience transformation to succeed, companies must overcome this middle-manager blockade. Here are some ideas:

  • Form a middle manager task force, letting them voice their issues and help identify solutions
  • Build a CX advocate/ambassador program and include some middle managers, this will give them a voice outside of their formal reporting structures
  • Relieve some of their existing goals, giving middle managers bandwidth and motivation to focus on the new direction
  • Celebrate middle managers who are making the change, focusing on their advocacy of the new direction
  • Discuss middle managers in executive meetings, hopefully raising empathy for their situation
  • Make middle mangers a priority as you focus on the Five I’s of Employee Engagement: Inform, Inspire, Instruct, Involve, and Incent.

The bottom line: Don’t hate the middle managers, hate the game

About Bruce Temkin, CCXP
I'm an experience (XM) management catalyst; helping organizations improve results by engaging the hearts and minds of their employees, customers, and partners. I enjoy researching and speaking about these topics. I lead the Qualtrics XM Institute, which is the world's best job. We're igniting a global community of XM Professionals who are inspired and empowered to radically improve the human experience. To achieve this goal, my team focuses on thought leadership, training, and community building. My work is driven by a set of fundamental beliefs: 1) Everything starts and ends with human beings, so you need to understand how people think, feel, and behave; 2) XM is a discipline that needs to be woven throughout an organization's entire operating fabric; and 3) Building the XM discipline requires a combination of culture, competency, and technology.

2 Responses to Why Do Middle Managers Obstruct CX Progress?

  1. Dave Teeter says:

    Hello Bruce, Years ago, at a major car company, we ran into major middle mgt resistance with a company-wide TQM program. Our observation was that the empowerment to the front line employees actually threatened the power and jobs of the middle managers and this is why they resisted the change. On the other hand, if middle management was incented or judged on their support of TQM results, we may have had more support. I appreciate your insights greatly – Dave T

  2. Terry says:

    I see this as more a matter of being part of the change and being told of the change. Senior managers tend to rally their frontline employees around strategic changes that directly affect the customer experience. Often times middle managers are left implenting the change rather than being part of it.

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