Employees have ESP, Smithson says. They can look at a manager and tell - "without them even saying anything" - whether they support a change or not. "And if a manager's not on board with a change, it's pretty unlikely that their team's going to be on board with change," she says.
To make matters worse, employers often forget that managers confronted with change have the same questions, concerns and need for time to come to terms with it, as their subordinates. Instead, they go straight to treating them as a communication channel.
In some cases, senior executives assume mangers will be on board simply because they were told to be, or are paid to be. "[That's] the mistake we often make with managers. We assume they're on board, we assume they understand the need for change, we assume they support the change because they're managers."
Smithson once ran a workshop where the manager of a group of team leaders had been asked to open the session. Instead of welcoming everyone to the session with enthusiasm and reminding them of the importance of the change, the manager came in late, turned her back on the group and started reading a series of PowerPoint slides.
"She read it off like a robot then turned around and said, 'Look, I've got another meeting to go to, I'm double booked, I'll see you guys later.' And she was out the door in five minutes," Smithson says.
"The rest of her team leaders folded their arms... And I thought, 'What's happened to that manager, who's a loyal and long-serving member of the organisation, to really disengage her in a change that her team needs to embrace?'"
Smithson says employers wanting to ensure their managers are "change makers", not "change breakers" need to help them to understand their role as change leaders, and equip them through training, so they can play their part with confidence. But first, they need to get them on board.
Remember the golden rule Development of "a special plan to get managers on board" is a step that is too often skipped, Smithson says.
Employers must treat managers as a special, distinct group from the outset, taking time to consider the impact the change will have on them - and their level of readiness or resistance - before expecting them to promote it.
Ensuring managers are the first to know about a significant change is vital.
"Never ever, ever announce a change to a group of managers with their teams in the room," Smithson says. "That's the
worst thing you can do. Because managers walk out of the meeting and say, 'Well, don't ask me for any more information, I just heard the same as you'.
"Sometimes HR and project teams say 'Look, let's not bother the managers, let's leave it as late as possible so we don't bug them or disrupt them'. But in fact, engaging people early is what helps get them on board," she says.
Particularly in global organisations where "everyone gets the same email on the same day", this can difficult, but it is worthwhile - even if it means getting them to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
"I'd say this is the golden rule. Tell managers first. And give them time, even if it's 24 hours... to digest... before tasking them up as communicators," Smithson says.
Don't ignore resistance and concern. Employers should also be on the lookout for signs of resistance from managers. Whether it is a voiced concern about a particular aspect of the project, or reluctance expressed through body language, it needs to be addressed.
Managers who are "unable" to attend meetings because they are "double booked" or keep saying, "come back later, we're busy this month" need special attention, Smithson says. Another "dead giveaway" of resistance is when managers start sending delegates to meetings instead of attending themselves.
"Don't ignore resistance, concerns and issues and hope they will go away - and don't think that you can work around it - because you'll never convince the staff if their manager isn't on board," she says.
If a manager who seems to be holding up the change process will give no explanation for their resistance, HR should consider how their role in the change process is linked to their performance goals, rewards and KPIs, she says.