As a newly hired manager, inheriting a new team can be challenging. You face many obstacles. What is a new manager to do? First, breathe…. You are not the first to face this challenge. You must muster up the confidence that those who hired you in the first place knew what they were doing when they selected you for the job. They believed in your abilities, that you bring the right skills and that you are able to administer the change that the team needed.
Was the former manager exited from the business? If so, you should consider a few things about the current team. When a team member (especially a leader) is dismissed, it causes much emotional stress, not much different than the anxiety children of divorced parents feel. If you are a child of parents who split up or you have ever worked under a replacement manager, then you may personally identify with the stages of business grief we are about to discuss.
When taking over a team, your first order of business is to recognize that no matter what, they will all move through the stages of grief at their individual pace. With some employees, you may hardly notice a phase, while others may stay in a phase so long you will be tempted to write them up. You will need to deal with them as individuals and also as a group.
When dealing with grief, most of us have learned or experienced that the first stage is denial. Try to tap into your own experiences so that you can relate to how those team members may be feeling and reacting. If the former leader was widely accepted and liked, your new team is likely feeling that same denial. Just know that they may not be so enthusiastic about accepting you as their new leader just yet. These folks are feeling helpless because they are in not in control and may even be in a state of shock. They are denying that their former leader is actually gone and grappling with what that means for them.
Think about what the team needs at each phase of grieving, for example: when the team is in the denial phase giving them space to come to terms with what has changed is the most effective measure. Do not approach them heavy-handed. This is not the time to bring in all of your changes, regardless of how enthusiastic you are. Instead, ensure them you are there to listen to them and that when the time is right, you will share your opinions and plans for the team with them. Your job here is to reassure and lead by being clear that you are in charge but not overwhelm them with details. Give them the proper amount of time and listen. If they do present a concern or issue make sure you address it promptly. They are watching your every move and scrutinizing your choices.
The second stage is anger. Can you guess who that will be directed toward? Team members may talk poorly about you with other managers to build a consensus that the decision to bring you on was a mistake. You may even have a team member who is resentful that they were not offered the opportunity to lead the team. In many professional settings, this anger may simply manifest itself in passive-aggressive behavior where team members will likely say “yes” to your face and never fulfill their duties. Simply expect it and try not to take it personally.
When you get a sense that your team is in the anger phase, try redirecting that energy toward something more positive that you all can do together as a team. It could be a fun event, but consider taking the opportunity to rally the team around a more positive cause, doing good for others. Perhaps you could hold a team-building event volunteering for a cause. The more physical, the better. So go bang nails for Habitat for Humanity, or garden together at a community vegetable garden. Make sure you lead your team in selecting and scheduling the event and while you are there be in charge of them, lead them in the effort. This will give them another opportunity to experience your style and get to know you even better in a non-threatening environment.
The next step in the process is bargaining. Since the team is unsure of your management style, they will likely try to convince you to keep things the way they always have been. They will want to see the rules enforced (or not) in the same manner as the former manager. This is the time to pick your battles carefully. But once you do it’s imperative to stick to your guns. This is how they will learn to trust your character. To keep bargaining to a minimum, over-communicate what you expect and what the impact is on the company, the employee, and the customer. Make sure you can show the positive results of what is in it for them.
After the bargaining is over, the team members often enter a phase of depression. This stage is crucial to your success. When your new team members stop creating friction with you and start actually executing upon your requests, they will appear to be compliant. You may be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief or to give yourself a pat on the back. You may think that you are finally winning people over, and that may even be true…but wait. The depression stage is only the calm before the storm. Replacement managers often make the mistake of letting down their guard in this phase.
The best advice is to take a reality check here. The employees who were extremely unhappy with the change are still likely unhappy. On the other side, those people who secretly felt disloyal to their former manager are still uneasy. This is called the depression stage for a reason, it is the point in the process when people typically look to move away from their own pain and change jobs. In the process, they may cause disruption in the team, convincing others that they should be unhappy and that leaving for a new opportunity is the best action to take. A mass exodus can make your job a living hell over next ninety days or more.
During the depression stage, you have the opportunity to prove to them that you are a person of character. Make sure you follow through on all promises. Encourage people with your vision of the future. Be aware if someone is trying to rally the troops to leave for other employment and have individual conversations with this employee. Don’t be afraid to probe to discover what they want and what they think they will receive at another company. Make every attempt that is in your power to turn them around. Nothing stops a team mutiny faster than having the instigator start singing your praises.
By drawing upon your own experiences of grieving, paying attention to the delicate political culture of your team, and leading them through each of the emotional stages, you will reach the final phase of acceptance sooner. And not just sooner, but you will have built a stronger, more loyal team. You will have everyone on your team on the same page. You will have established a trust as their manager. This will finally get you to the nirvana you have been waiting for, where your team becomes predictable, stable, and more productive. The outcome of all your efforts will produce healthy, tangible results so you can prove to your company and yourself you were the right choice as the replacement manager.