The Role of the Line Manager in Managing Change


With a gloomy outlook ahead for the UK and much of the global economy,  many organisations are battening down the hatches, implementing cut backs and rationalisations. As  they  face up to change, businesses also need to adapt to shifts in technology and global competition. Line managers are likely to be part of many change initiatives, either as initiators or implementors. This article considers how managers can make the strongest contribution.

News that Eastman Kodak has gone into Chapter 11 and Nokia and Blackberry makers RIM in difficulties all point to the fact that past success won’t necessarily carry you forward into the future. The ability to manage change in organisations is therefore a key managerial capability: managers must build their capability to manage change and adapt their organisation. Motivating people, working with them to help them understand the need for change, and supporting them through personal and sometimes difficult change is a crucial component of making change a success. This has to fight for management attention alongside other, important tangibles such as new processes, structures or facilities.

Change involves moving an organisation from its current state, through a transition phase, to a desired future state.  However, it is rarely that neat and tidy and the success rates are startlingly low-research indicates that up to ninety percent of change initiatives fail to achieve their objectives. Change is now a constant fact of life in most commercial and public sector organisations. In fact, for many organisations, change programmes merge into one other, such that a business seems to be undergoing initiative after change initiative. Bewildered Health Service managers typify how this can be keenly felt.

Change Elements

Part of the problem with any change is that there is a vast range of elements for managers to consider and these often overlap and interact. This article considers what we believe are important elements where line managers can make an impact:
• Understanding the context for change: why is change needed?
• Assessing the importance of organisational culture
• Motivation and support of followers
• Engaging others and sustaining change

Why do we need to change?

Any organisational change must start off with a clear view on what is driving change. This means understanding the strategic imperative for change, how change is required and the shape of tangibles such as processes that need to change. .  Managers need to understand the culture and power of stakeholders to discern what changes need to be made for a strategy to succeed. Eastman Kodak saw digital imaging coming, but failed to move quickly enough away from its legacy of film that had made it so successful.

Technical and Personal Change

When considering the introduction of change the effective manager recognises the need to marry both the technical and the personal aspects of change.
The technical aspects include:
• the organisational processes
• organisational structure,
• systems of the organisation
• Knowledge and skills
The people and cultural aspects involve;
• organisational culture
• group dynamics and sub-cultures
• working practices of the organisation. 

Both must be addressed in managing organisational change; there is a tendency to over-emphasise the tangible aspects of change and pay insufficient attention to the people dimension. .L&D can act as a voice for such important blocks and enablers.

Understand  your Culture and its Context

Consideration must be given to change sensitive features of the organisation, for example what is the existing capability for change? What time-scales are you operating to which will cause most problems? What resources do you have?

These then help clarify the change management approach which is right for your context, and you can flex your approach accordingly. For example a change which involves shutting down a plant in a financial crisis is likely to be very short term and will require a much less facilitative and more directive approach than a change involving a long-term shift towards becoming a customer-focused organisation.

It is important to understand what will help your organisation to change, and what will hold it back, thinking through the various drivers and barriers to change.  The objective of any change agent is to minimise or neutralise the barriers to change and promote and augment the drivers of change.

Motivation and Support to Lead Change

Leaders play an essential and pivotal role in change – they set an example, energise others, monitor, review and reward progress. Conversely they can hold back change, water down its impact or divert attention to other matters. So that leaders can effectively lead change it is important, therefore, to understand their personal motivations, reactions to change and the required behavioural changes. Being aware of one’s own leadership style and how this may help or hinder change is extremely valuable. It is also helpful to understand where each individual is positioned on the change curve, where emotions can fluctuate widely according to  one’s reactions to change, for example:
• Are you in denial about the change and just continuing on as normal?
• Do you feel angry or upset about the potential changes?
• Have you come to terms with the change?
• Are you experimenting with what change means?
• Have you fully accepted the change and integrated this in to your working practices?
In addition, it is helpful to be conscious that where you are on the change curve may be ahead of your team members – you may be at the acceptance phase of change and a team may still be in denial, for example.
Managers can give much needed insight and support to individuals and teams as they wrestle with these all-important emotions which are part and parcel of change.

Engaging Others and Sustaining Change

Maintaining engagement of employees with the change is vital, yet by no means easy. Change management carried out ‘top down’ can become a matter of cynical manipulation, with the result that staff  feel disconnected and uninvolved in the change. Managers must particularly work on:
1. Resistance to change:  the need to understand and recognise what is causing resistance to changes in attitudes and behaviour by individuals and how to support people through it and promote new, changed behaviours and approaches. 
2. Power: the need to identify and shape the political dynamics to support the change, rather than block it.
3. Sustaining change:  the need to design and implement organisational arrangements to ensure that change is maintained after initial enthusiasm has worn off. 
Change will only be successful if becomes self-sustaining and spreads to all parts of the organisation. This can by no means be taken for granted: often attention switches to new projects, new people take over without the background and funding stop.

Change Management Best Practice

Top down? Tackling risk-aversion? Fast? Slow? There is no one best way of managing organisational change, since much depends on the context of the organisation.  We have chosen a range of organisations to illustrate some key strands of change management. Often a “big name” is credited with a well-publicised change, but its continuation and widespread success is down to the development of a widely dispersed group of leaders.


In reforming and reviving Nissan from 1990 onwards, newcomer Carlos Ghosn faced huge challenges – not least initially cost cutting and the loss of jobs.  Goshn expanded and deepened existing employee capabilities and enhanced knowledge and communication. At first he brought in a small team from his old company, Renault, to coach and encourage change across business functions, but they did not force it on employees in a top-down, unexplained style.  


What has made Apple handle considerable change with long term success? Steve Jobs tends to get all the credit, but success has been achieved through building into the culture learning from past successes and failures and embedding a strongly innovative culture. The company has well-developed skills in matching awareness of consumer trends with a well diversified product mix and successful marketing, coupled with sound management of its supply chain.

Sue Ryder Care
Sue Ryder is a long-established, national charity providing health and social care services in local communities. Financial crisis and a changing need for more local care provision weighed heavily on the new CEO. To understand more about the necessary change and to gain commitment, the organisation started by adopting a key principle of active listening, for example kicking off with a staff conference to discuss the realities. A new leadership team was brought in and some staff left, but most staff were committed to radical change as a result of the extensive listening and consultation. New skills and approaches have helped present a whole new image and practice, visible through the local organization.

St George’s School London

In 2000, experienced new head Marie Stubbs initiated the turnaround a failing London School. It was later made into a TV film starring Julie Walters. She set clear standards and values:“Every child should be intrinsically valued.”, created a small group of trustworthy change agents (some of whom she had worked with before) to role model the change and work to new, improved standards.. The battles Stubbs had with powerful stakeholders, such as parents and governors, shows the importance of achieving full stakeholder buy-in, essential for the sustained success of any change programme.


Line managers can and should take a strong role in change, guided by their confidence in the importance of its contribution. The management of change is undoubtedly complex, with no hard-and-fast rules or precedent to absolutely rely upon. However, line managers can be leaders of change and support their organisation throughout the whole of the process.
Steve Macaulay and Sarah Cook are development specialists who focus on helping managers and organisations to achieve change in an empowered, customer-focused way. Sarah is the author of “The Essential Guide to Employee Engagement” published by Kogan Page. Steve can be contacted via email on; Sarah on


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