Why is it that leaders often believe they’ve given clear direction, while the rank-and-file remains practically unaware that there’s been any communication at all?

I just got an email from a mid-level manager who’s in the midst of a change initiative. He noted that although “those among the senior leadership felt they had communicated the change, allowed for inclusion and involvement and felt positive about the process,” the staff feel strongly that “they had zero voice, were not included in any way,” and were experiencing the required change as “dictated in a top-down” manner.

Unfortunately, this is a common situation. Many leaders complain that when they’re trying to create change, employees don’t pay attention. Some frustrated leaders worry that their employees are too stubborn, short-sighted, or intentionally unwilling to change; others grow resentful and feel forced to lead by fiat, as if they can’t get anyone on board otherwise.

Meanwhile, too many employees feel like they never know what’s going on, or worse, as if changes are planned cavalierly, without taking them into account. They become frustrated too, waiting for the slightest indication that anyone is bothering to pay attention to what they actually experience on the job or what they think would work better. When it seems like no one notices what goes wrong or is a hardship for employees, they assume that, even if leadership did take note, there would be no real interest anyway.

How Things Look from the Top

Here’s how the situation can go so wrong:

The leader develops an initiative in a conference room with a few other smart people from management — often over a longer period of time than the leader thought would be necessary. They work through the pros and cons, discuss alternatives, maybe even incorporate findings from recent employee-engagement or customer-satisfaction surveys.

After this informal team games out various scenarios for what might happen, with multiple iterations and lots of negotiations among them, the leader feels like they’ve finally got it, everything hangs together, and they know exactly how to explain it to the troops. They call an all-hands meeting, announce their conclusions, ask for questions, and then, with much relief and satisfaction, wait for everything to blossom.

The View from Below

But the leadership team actually has no sense of how startling this sort of initiative can be when it’s introduced. They forget that, thanks to all those meetings in the conference room, they’ve thought so many times about the content that they’ve gotten overly familiar with it — meanwhile their staff is only hearing about it for the first time, and can’t yet see the connections and benefits. The doubts and fears of disruption and personal risk arise immediately.

The presentation almost never delivers enough context, and usually drops what feel like huge conclusions in one fell swoop. Then the leadership asks for questions while people are only just starting to process the concepts and wondering, “What’s in it for me?” and “What do I actually need to do? And how soon?”

Change Gets Stuck in the Middle

Even worse, senior leaders rarely realize that they’ve just kicked off the equivalent of an episode of GOT. Except, in this case, it’s the Game of Telephone, because the most important conduit of all this information is not the senior leaders who did the conceptualizing. It’s the middle-level managers, who are supposed to be able to interpret the details about how individual jobs will change, so they can help employees understand and accept the new assignments or processes.

But senior leaders rarely invest the very significant time or energy needed to prepare each level of management and every manager with the context and insight to convey correct, salient information to the next level in a thoughtful way. All too often, there’s a lot of nodding and murmurs of assent, but no acceptance or action. And when the middle levels are not aligned with the plan, or don’t truly understand how their own jobs will change or what will be considered successful performance under the new regime, they can stall or block progress altogether.

Finding a Way Forward

This situation isn’t hopeless, it’s only hard. After all, how long does it take you to change a longstanding personal habit? Have you ever tried to give up smoking or remember to clear your desk each day before you go home? Chances are you’ve sometimes felt like you’re talking to yourself, but yourself is not listening.

To succeed, leaders need to remember two big things about their followers: 1) Their followers do not already understand their intentions or plans, and 2) Like most employees, middle managers need a surprising amount of support to be able to recognize at a granular level how the change will affect them, and how to work with that change. When leaders invest the time and energy to bring the entire mid-level of the organization fully on board, they’ll have a much greater chance of having their new plans heard, understood, and accepted — or tweaked in such a way that they can be.