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 an ax, 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.
Two Principles to Consider
1. Your first responsibility is to your company, and to achieving the performance targets set for your team. Be friendly and approachable, but remember you are not in a popularity contest.
2. Listen to each team member, respond, and take action whenever necessary. Identify the individual talents in the team, and provide the tools to reframe the new team culture for accountability and results.
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.
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.