Claiming your inheritance

I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt. I also believe in facing difficulties as quickly as possible. Both of these beliefs can help you cope if you inherit a staff. Whether it happens because of your reassignment or theirs, working with a group you didn’t choose really covers the same ground as classic team building in both concept and practice. The big difference is that you know each other only by reputation, if at all.

Incumbents have fears, see risks, may have been burned before, can act detached, will be resistant — just like employees you screen and select yourself. But since most humans always harbor a bit of hope, your inherited staffers may also be waiting for a chance to shine after years of having been overlooked.

When you have the chance to hire your own staff, you start off with the premise that you’ve chosen each other intentionally; both parties believe that you can work well together and will benefit from the relationship. The expectations of the inherited staff are not necessarily so positive. Depending on the reasons that their old manager is no longer in place, that the individual staffers have been moved from department to department, or that you ended up in the job, your new team may react to you as their savior, as a neutral, unknown figure, or as their mortal enemy.

As promptly as possible, interview your team members to understand what you can do as their manager to support and enhance their performance on both a group and an individual basis. Knowledge of the work team is always a critical building block of management theory and practice, but in this case you can’t start with a clean slate; you’re walking into a situation that has a history that doesn’t include you.

Meet with each of the incumbents individually as well as in their natural work groups. Ask what names they like to be called, and give them the chance to tell you what their roles are and what they see as the critical issues going forward. Encourage them to talk about what they do best. Also tell them, at least in conceptual terms, the way you work best, what you expect from them, and the best ways to appeal to you. Detail any critical specifics that you know will make a difference on your receptivity (your preference for scheduling discussions via e-mail instead of drop-in visits; weekly reports on Thursdays, not Fridays), and let them negotiate the particulars (Thursday is okay, but it’ll be late afternoon) wherever possible.

When you’re working with people who have preexisting cultural norms, expectations, or fears of how bosses behave, they’re likely to demonstrate patterned behavior for relating to each other and to the larger organization. Make sure that you’re fostering trust, communication, and cooperation by both your words and your deeds, including clarifying work objectives and acceptable ranges of behavior. Then you can get to the more complex subjects of increasing productivity, enhancing creativity and innovation, and strengthening decision making.

For example, ask them to back up their proposals with structured business cases from the very beginning (see “The power of positive asking,” April issue) instead of granting over-the-transom requests on a one-off basis; teach them how to get your best attention. What you want to be vigilant about and avoid specifically is micromanaging and making everyone’s decisions for them. This is true even if team members are not skilled in or comfortable making decisions by themselves today.

If you find that your staff consistently consults you on trivial matters, don’t just hold your head in exhaustion. Figure out how to give everyone some more rope, and encourage, even insist that they use it. Shift the dynamic so they see that the way to please you is to save you time and energy, not to show how much they need you.

Ask leading questions instead of just answering them. The work is still their assignment and responsibility, not yours, even if you can picture yourself resolving situations faster. You can certainly make a few suggestions and issue a few cautions, but your goal should be their successful performance under your direction — not to save the day for them. If you help employees make their own successes, then when you praise them for their contributions your praise will have credibility.

And since some members of your staff may not be quite as strong as you’d like, be prepared to work on your patience. As you train and coach to strengthen their skills or judgment, not only should their performance improve, but you’ll also be granting them a sufficient time period in which you can conduct a fair assessment of both potential and performance.

Inherited employees often confront or challenge a new boss about content, methods, style, even about his right to be the boss. Stay neutral. Remember all the techniques you ever learned for accepting criticism gracefully. You’ll be able to respond, of course, but it’s critical not to sound or look defensive; posture, gestures, facial expressions, voice, and language all count. Acknowledge the commentary, review the context as well as the goals or the requirements, and try to craft a satisfactory working agreement together.

As a manager, your first job is to manage yourself. Don’t keep bringing up “how we did it at ABC” or your experiences “when I had a job like yours.” No one wants to hear it, it doesn’t feel relevant, and they’ll actually think you don’t know how to deal with the realities of here and now.

Some incumbents may act out. They may do it to get your attention, either positive or negative, or to curry favor. When employees are trying to persuade you to play favorites, do what you can to resist, even if they’re promising inside information or special loyalty. You need collaboration and communication, not a divided work group — even if they did the dividing all by themselves.

Once a staff perceives favoritism on your part, it doesn’t matter who started it; you’ll suffer the results. These may range from staffers who provide information only to you and not to other team members as a way of being divisive and pulling rank to employees who suppress critical information if it’s bad news because they think you’ll be unhappy. Either approach can be fatal to accurate planning, monitoring, and decision making.

Regardless of past results, you can foster improved teamwork and more effective functional performance than your incumbents’ reputations might suggest. Keep several actionable guidelines in mind:

  • Don’t let history dictate the future.

  • Know each individual as an individual.

  • Give credit when you can and criticism when you must, but always treat the group equitably.

  • Explain how to work with you.

Sometimes the history is accurate and predictive; just as often it’s not. All you need to work with an inherited staff is good management — plus the acknowledgment that you will have to break down a couple of extra barriers, give a couple of extra chances, and be just a slightly smarter coach.

Liz Kislik is president of Rockville Centre, NY-based contact center and customer service consultancy Liz Kislik Associates.