I saw this for the first time when I was a consultant in the military: sergeants who have seen many officers come and go, welcome a new officer with some degree of apathy. They don’t really bother to listen to the type of changes the officer requests and they are probably thinking, “We’ve been here for so many years. The officer just arrived. He doesn’t know how we do things and it’s best if he doesn’t disturb us and lets us do our job without trying to make too many changes.”
In the military, as it is sometimes in the business world, sergeants may know a whole lot more than the new officer and it would be wise to listen to them. It is, however, equally as common that new managers need to establish some changes in order to deliver better results; in which cases this dynamic between the old team and the new manager becomes somewhat delicate.
Lauren inherited a 7 year old team that was managed by the same manager for 5 years prior to Lauren’s arrival. The previous manager was let go because her department was not performing up to par. While the previous manager accused her team of being lazy and difficult, senior leadership saw it as the manager’s role to get her team to perform. When Laura met the team for the first time, it was very clear that team members had no intention of changing anything about the way they were doing things before. “They pout or tell me there is no way they are going to do what I ask them…One of the employees keeps coming in late to work even though I clearly told her that is unacceptable…I’m thinking I may have to fire someone for them to take me seriously.”
Firing an employee works sometimes, but it can be avoided.
What to do? How do you get new managers to get an inherited team to perform for them?
1. Set a clear baseline for expectations: If you find it difficult to communicate your expectations clearly but kindly, that’s the first place you need to look. KCI and many excellent companies offer coaching and other models for managers and leaders. Sometimes, however, it’s not lack of skill that is getting in the way. Managers wait. They think that in time the team will get to know them, trust them and respect them, and that with respect will come cooperation. This is all great when the employees are following at least your authority if not your leadership. It doesn’t work well with manipulative employees who are trying to keep you from making as few changes as possible. Be respectful and clear. Define where your red lines are, communicate them in advance and continuously enforce them. Lauren made some changes to the way she communicated with the team (learning to feel very comfortable with her authority and using clear but kind communication). That was enough in her case, but it isn’t always the end of the story.
2. Get the team to speak your language: teams who want to do things their way don’t see reality the same way their manager does. When their manager says they need to work harder, their work code tells them the manager is overworking them. Teams that are used to their manager staying out of “their business” may respond with frustration if a new manager comes and asks to get reports of their work. Teams that are not used to effective meetings may complain that the manager doesn’t trust them. New managers often make this mistake. They don’t share with the team their clear expectations or they start sharing too many expectations, mostly to gain a sense of authority. Without setting clear boundaries around what’s okay and what isn’t, old teams often start manipulating the new manager in order to keep things unchanged. One manager of an engineering team in the biotech industry told me recently that his team, which he inherited more than a year ago, is constantly complaining: “They do their job and we meet our goals better than they ever have before, but they are constantly complaining because now they actually have to work instead of playing on the computer half of the time…” The problem is, they are not judging themselves by using the same standards, expectations and views their manager is using. Without aligning the language, this becomes an endless war, with each side trying to push to get as much as possible.
3. Overcome resistance: Teams resist in dysfunctional ways because they lack better ways to resist. We all resist change. It’s normal and, in fact, it’s a natural part of making lasting change. But resistance can be as little as saying: “I don’t feel comfortable with that right now, let me sleep on it” or asking: “Can we do this gradually or talk about the parts I have reservations about?” It does not have to be manipulating the manager or complaining. It comes down to the way people are programmed, which means you need to quickly identify what is missing in their arsenal of response patterns that is making them default to unhealthy ways of resistance. If you add new response patterns in, people start resisting differently. Learn how to transition your team to a healthy resistance response.
3. Figure out what is at the heart of the gap: Teams respond differently to the same situation when they look through different lenses. When the lenses the manager and the team are using are not the same, an invisible gap is formed. Managers who have excellent systemic thinking meeting a team that lacks this ability,for example, may find it very difficult to get their team on board, unless they equip their team with systemic thinking. Managers make the mistake of figuring out which behaviors or execution patterns need to change and then describe to the team which new behaviors are required. If you have successfully dealt with resistance and you team had all the abilities to understand and execute in a way that meets your expectations, they would have already done so. If they are not, there is something they are missing, and it’s your job to give it to them.
Building a new team is often easier than entering an existing one. This is odd when you think about it because there is so much existing teams are already proficient at. You don’t need to teach them most tasks. They already have most of the expertise and knowledge they need. And yet, the effort of relearning, or re-teaching, is so great sometimes that it alone can get the team in lots of trouble.
What is your experience with inheriting existing teams? We’d love to share with you the nuances of what worked and what we find doesn’t work so well so that the transition will be smooth and seamless.