What’s a new manager to do?

The Situation: Susan (not her real name), was a fairly new manager who was hired to head a division of 20 technical and support staff members, many of whom had been there a long time. Her predecessor of 17 years had retired, and the long-time assistant manager, Camille, had been asked to do both her own job and the manager’s job for about a year. She applied for the manager’s job, but Susan was hired instead.

Susan came in from the outside with lots of new ideas, and encountered a lot of staff distrust. After meeting individually with each employee, she noted that:

– most people seemed quite competent, worked independently and liked it that way

 – many staff members felt overworked since 3 positions had been cut

– there was little communication between Camille and the staff, and staff didn’t know or seem to care about the ‘big picture’ that Camille worked with

– there were no staff meetings, and no other regular ways for staff to meet or share information

– though staff members were individually proud of the work they did, there wasn’t any team spirit

– there was jealousy between some of the technical staff members over who got to do the more interesting projects, and how those were assigned 

Susan determined that a high priority was to improve communication. She instituted regular staff meetings (she brought snacks) where she shared what was going on in this and other areas of the Department. She asked for comments and input, but most people listened politely and remained quiet. She also started copying staff on information she received from other areas of the Department, and sending weekly e-mail updates to all staff concerning work within the division.

Susan also thought there should be more team spirit, so she created a monthly theme (usually tied to something seasonal), asked people to decorate their work spaces according to that theme, scheduled a monthly potluck lunch, and made sure birthdays were acknowledged with a birthday song and cake (for which she paid).

The result? People grumbled about being forced to do things not related to work, and team feeling sank even lower. Some staff members appreciated receiving more information, some grumped about excess e-mails with irrelevant information, and a there was lots of resentment that their time was being used for frivolous things that just put them more behind in their work.

What went wrong? Clearly, Susan had good intentions. So, what went wrong here? Susan approached her new job well. It was good that she met with everyone individually. She recognized (probably correctly) that some of the challenges of this workplace had to do with lack of communication and lack of teamwork. However, the solutions she imposed (staff meetings for the purpose of sharing information where only she talked, and mandated “fun”) were not going to work. For one thing, though she identified some of the issues, she imposed her idea of solutions without any participation from staff.  And that assumes that these two issues are really the ones staff feel are most important!

What should she have done? Once she had gathered information from individual employee interviews, she should have shared the results (in a general way) with the whole staff. Then, she should have solicited their responses to the information.  They would likely have determined that some way of sharing more information was good – but might also have come up with approaches that were more meaningful to them. And, they would have had ownership in those approaches because they developed them. The same is true for Susan’s poor attempts to improve team spirit. 

What now? Given that Susan found herself in this situation after having tried and failed in her attempts to improve things, the best thing to do is back up. Admit that what she did was not effective, and ask for help from the staff: invite interested staff members to work with her to determine effective approaches to the issues that were raised. That will be much more likely to yield positive results than anything she could develop on her own – even if it was a great idea. Involvement creates commitment. Ideas – even if they’re good ones – imposed from the top, do not.

Have you ever been a new manager trying to succeed in a difficult situation? Have you been an employee subject to a new manager’s ideas of how to improve things? Let us know what worked – or didn’t. We’d love to hear from you! ~ Daphne Schneider

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