Emotional Balancing of Organizational Continuity and Radical Change - The Contribution of Middle Managers

Based on a three-year field study of a large firm’s attempt at radical change, Professor Quy Nguyen Huy shows how middle managers displayed two main emotion-management patterns that facilitated beneficial adaptation of change—emotionally committing to change projects and attending to recipients’ emotions. The use of both patterns, although seemingly opposite, struck an effective process of emotional balancing and facilitated organizational adaptation.

by Quy Huy
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Radical change might only happen once in the lifetime of a firm. It is usually highly disturbing, for the employees and the firm itself, as change is typically made while maintaining a degree of continuity for the sake of long-term adaptation and the need to do business as usual to serve customers and generate revenues.

Coordinating both the change and continuity involves fielding emotions, managing efficiently and maintaining an emotional balance. As Quy Nguyen Huy, Associate Professor of Strategy and Management at INSEAD, discovered, there is a world of valuable cooperation and information about managing radical change that can be discovered from every level of employee within a given organization. Although research typically focuses on how top executives handle radical change, Professor Huy takes a new look down the ranks, listening to employees at every level, especially examining the role of middle managers.

In his previous research, Professor Huy argued against the infamous reputations traditionally imputed to middle managers, and proposed instead that middle managers are important links to effective change. They are the ones closest to the front-line employees, and they are in effective positions to tune into the needs of their employees. Here, he further develops those concepts as he describes how middle managers facilitate organizational adaptation through a juxtaposition of emotion-management activities, a theory he calls emotional balancing.

During the three years he spent observing a firm that was undergoing radical change, Professor Huy conducted hundreds of formal interviews and more than 1,000 informal conversations with some 500 employees at all levels of the organization. His initial research questions were open-ended: “how do various groups think, feel and act in a radical change context?” and “how does the evolution of perceptions, feelings and actions affect the outcome of change?”

There were a range of emotional responses to the change, but in terms of the middle management, Professor Huy zeroes in on two main activities: some were intensely emotionally committed to the change projects, while others attended to their subordinates’ emotions and agitated feelings. Typical beliefs related to the former include comments like, “I care about this project,” “this project is my baby,” and “I want to leave something behind when I leave.” Those favoring the latter style tended to show greater concern for employees’ feelings and emotions, often looking out for employee burnout or fatigue, and employees’ personal problems.

The real question then emerged, how and why did they use the two emotional management patterns, which seem quite contradictory? And how did that actually contribute to balancing organizational continuity and change at the work-group level? Professor Huy answers these questions by charting how these emotion-management patterns influenced continuity and change across select change projects (eight in all).

Indeed, the two patterns together struck an effective emotional balance that aided the adoption of the change. The case examples suggest that emotional balancing is highly important for radical change and that middle managers are often better skilled than executives at emotional balancing during times of radical change.

Professor Huy ends on a cautionary note, saying that these findings represent just a small representation of the role of middle managers in radical change, and if the current prevalent practice of downsizing the middle management continues, it could have a potentially damaging effect on organizations.

Administrative Science Quarterly, March 2002

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