Middle management sensemaking of how their peers think and feel about a new strategy, and whether the opinions of their peers mirror their own feelings, ultimately impacts whether middle managers implement the strategy.
Many people “make sense” of the world through their peers—that is, they seek to better understand events in the world around them by talking with and learning how their peers are responding to the events in question. This occurs when a new corporate strategy is announced by top management that is ambiguous—that is, not clearly defined, for example, or for which a business case is not clearly made. Middle managers are key to the implementation of a strategy. In the face of such ambiguity, however, middle managers will interact with other middle managers to gauge their attitudes toward the new strategy.
A study of middle management response to a new top-down strategy introduced at the plant of a multinational German engineering company confirmed that sensemaking took place among middle managers in response to ambiguity. The new strategy studied by the research team was a top-down strategy introduced to the plant management and employees through strategy roadshows. In interviews with the researchers, middle managers questioned whether the company had or were willing to acquire the resources and capabilities to build the new products at the heart of the new strategy. They also wondered about the impact on their plant which had been building the old products for decades.
As this “fog of ambiguity”, to use the researchers’ phrase, swirled around the strategy, middle managers sought in both formal and informal settings to get a sense of how their colleagues felt about the strategy. This sensemaking was often indirect—that is, managers inferred or deduced what others were thinking from their questions or comments.
In addition to establishing the sensemaking taking place, the research revealed a new facet of sensemaking that significantly impacted the ultimate success of the strategy. Some managers believed—based on what they had heard or inferred from others—that their colleagues shared these negative opinions (e.g., “my colleagues think the same”). Other managers told the interviewers that they believed their colleagues did not share their negative opinion and were in fact supportive of the new strategy (“I think most think that the strategy is very, very good”).
The researchers discovered that middle managers who believed others agreed with their negative assessment of the strategy did not take any initial action to support the strategy. In contrast, middle managers who felt their colleagues did not share their misgivings but instead supported the strategy were willing to take initial action (e.g., “I supported the implementation of the new strategy by supporting the installation of test products and applications”).
The researchers conclude that believing colleagues shared their concerns about the strategy reinforced the negative views of middle managers—and strengthened their resolve not to take initial strategy implementation actions. On the other hand, when their negative views were not perceived to be validated by colleagues, middle managers adjusted their views decided to support the implementation.
The research was based on 21 interviews with middle managers, including 10 that headed departments at the plant, and 8 part of the plant’s leadership circle. The interviews were supported by related material, including more than 400 news articles about the new strategy.
Leaders will want to be aware of the social dynamics at work among the ranks of middle managers when these managers are faced with strategic decisions that they might not understand or support.
Of course, informal, or formal consultations among managers cannot be controlled. However, leaders can take steps to ensure that the background against which the managers are gauging other managers’ responses is as positive as possible in favour of the strategy leaders are trying to implement. For example, ample opportunities should be created for middle managers to engage in two-way exchanges with leaders about the new strategy. An extra effort to communicate with the middle managers’ most influential peers could also help. Any reduction of ambiguity increases the potential for the success of a new strategy.
At the same time, this study can help middle managers recognize the impact that their interpretation of what colleagues think and feel about the new strategy has on their own reactions to a new strategy. Perhaps this will help middle managers build on their colleagues’ responses while seeking to make a more independent assessment of the strategy—which could then lead them to implement what is useful in the strategy while preventing what is harmful.
Benedikt Alexander Schuler’s profile at University of St. Gallen
Kevin Orr’s profile at University of St. Andrews
Jeffrey Hughes’ profile at Durham School of Business
My colleagues (do not) think the same: Middle managers’ shared and separate realities in strategy implementation. Benedikt Alexander Schuler, Kevin Orr, and Jeffrey Hughes. Journal of Business Research (May 2023).
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