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How New Managers Can Build a Team

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by Jessica Genereaux

Taking over an established team as a new manager is a challenge, especially if the team is not performing well. It’s a team you didn’t build, with members you didn’t choose, but it’s up to you to make it work when history shows the going has been rocky at best.

Your first inclination might be to fire those who aren’t pulling their weight (which the people who hired you probably already thought of). First impressions are everything. If you start your job criticizing or slinging arrows, you risk destroying team morale and establish your reputation as a tyrant. Not a good start.

When you are new on the job, and cliques have been formed long before your arrival, the best thing you can do is approach your new role with an open mind. You’ve accepted the mission, and it’s not impossible to motivate a lackluster team if you create a new environment, with rewards and consequences, where team members feel valued. When introducing yourself to the team, and conveying your approach to leadership, let the two principles guide you.

2 Principles

1. Company First: Your first responsibility is to the company who is paying your salary. The same goes for the team. What you also share in common is the corporate goal, which takes leadership and teamwork. Establishing trust is key to keeping the lines of communication open. Be friendly and approachable, but remember you are not in a popularity contest. Establish your support for the team and plan a one-to-one meeting with each team member to make sure you have significant feedback regarding the past and how to best move forward.

2. Listening is an overlooked leadership skill, according to Harvard Business Review. When you listen intently, you show you care. When you act upon an employee’s concerns or suggestions, you reinforce the team-leader relationship. A good listener shows compassion and empathy and puts himself in the employee’s position.


If your company offers a successful onboarding experience, chances are the team has already welcomed you. If not, you are on your own in developing relationships with each team member. Before you even think of getting down and dirty, establish that you are interested in them, and are a good listener.

Arrange to meet one-to-one with each team member to see how she understands her role. Ask questions. Beforehand, you could ask each team member to fill out a short questionnaire, including a few ideas of how to improve their own performance. What is getting in their way? Is there a clique? Does everyone feel included? Do they think the current process of getting things done is efficient? What could you, specifically, do to help them?  No idea is too small or off-base to share. Encourage creativity. Avoid judgment.

Employee Surveys

Employee feedback is an important tool for positive organizational change. Yet many companies who offer surveys do not act upon the feedback. Employees at the front line and those who have close connections with clients can contribute a wealth of information to the top brass. They are essentially in-house consultants with first-hand customer experience. When managers create their own surveys and take the feedback seriously, a bond of trust is formed. As a leader, the manager has established not only the ability to listen but to act upon the feedback of his subordinates.

New managers can use surveys in preparation for future meetings, such as the one-to-one “getting to know you’ event. Or you may rely on information provided by the people who hired you. They may have hired you because certain team members may butt heads, or others may slack off and they need your charm to them more productive.  They can also provide you with info on their hobbies, past times, pets, or cooking skills that will help you know who you’re dealing with. Absorb what you can for the one-to-one meeting.

One-to-one Meeting

The importance of giving your undivided attention to each employee in a one-to-one meeting cannot be overstated, especially for new managers. If you want to bond with the employee, it is necessary that you do your research. Review each team members background, including his or her education, hobbies, past work with the company, and length of time with the firm. If you know something about the employee beforehand, you don’t have to rely on dreaded eye-roller questions like, “Tell me about yourself.” Why put them on the spot? Many people feel uncomfortable talking about themselves, and those who do often won’t stop talking.  Instead, fall back on preparation and show your respect for them by affirming their accomplishments at the firm. Next, you can focus on how you can best help them achieve success on the team.  It doesn’t hurt to put a little chit chat in the mix if it happens naturally.

It’s ok to go off on a tangent and talk about matters unrelated to work. Does someone else also race bikes on weekends? Who has the beloved Bernese Mountain Dog pictured in the break room?  Who makes the best cheese cake for the holiday party?

Also be careful not to get too personal. Unless you’ve seen photos of their children on their desk or heard an employee talking about their kids, don’t ask about family. And don’t assume the spouse is still part of the picture. If you ask employees if they have kids, it not only demonstrates that you know nothing about them, they may find the question tired or offensive.

Politics or religion are two topics to avoid. And God forbid, avoid sexist comments or any form of bigotry, even in jest. If someone on the team ever starts, don’t join in. Steer the conversation away from controversy or someone could be out of a job or in legal trouble. Ask Donald Trump.

Applying the Two Principles

Once you’ve established a relationship with your team, you may wish to engage them in technical team building games, requiring critical thinking and problem-solving. A seasoned team facilitator, preferably outsourced vs. a familiar in-house corporate trainer can help them draw parallels to their work project and the new team culture you are initiating. You are still in charge, but allowing your team to engage in a timed program apart from you gives them a chance to see the parallels of their ongoing work project, which requires everyone’s efforts and has real consequences.

When it comes to technical team building, details matter. The workload must be shared throughout the team. Every cog in the wheel is needed. Games are a good way to reinforce to team members that they matter; that their talents are needed — otherwise others are left hanging or scrambling making up for the team member who didn’t show up or failed to do his part.

If a team member fails to meet the team’s expectations, get ready for another one-to-one. Is something else going on? Are personal issues involved? Any personality conflicts? Get to the heart of the matter as soon as you can. Name specific instances where the team member fell short and ask the employee to put himself in your position, “What would you do if you were me?”

As a new manager, you need to state your expectations and lay out the overall goals for your team. Offer an open-door policy to any individual who wishes to speak wth you directly. You’ll need to work with your lower performers to find the road blocks to their success. Are they introverts? Is there a greater talent raging underneath? Do they prefer to work alone, and join the team later? Do they need quiet to perform at their best? Sometimes the loudest staff can drown out the quiet ones, who may have thoughtful, creative ideas that never come to surface. What do they need to succeed? Help them to create an environment where their talents can flourish.

If you can impact your team in the first week or two, you are well on your way to improving the workplace culture where increased team performance is natural by-product.