What to Do When You Inherit a Struggling Team

Jun 9, 2015
7 Min Read

When you walk into a new management role and inherit an existing team, you’re hoping that they’re all stars who you’ll be delighted to work with. But sometimes – especially when you have a different vision than your predecessor or when you were brought in to take things in a different direction – you might find you’ve inherited a team that can’t do what you need.

It’s tough to tell even one person that while the old boss thought they were doing a perfectly good job, the new sheriff in town disagrees. But when a whole chunk of your inherited employees aren’t people you would have found qualified enough to hire, what should you do?

First, acknowledge that things are changing. Sit down with people and talk to them straightforwardly. Explain that you understand that expectations and standards have been different in the past, and describe what you’d like to be different going forward. Paint a picture of how you’d like things working a few months from now and what work quality should look like. Talk about the things that will need to be done differently so that can happen. Ask people what kind of help they need to get there, and offer help where it’s reasonable, but hold the bar high. Speaking of which…

Don’t be limited by what’s realistic for this team to achieve; think about what a great team could achieve. You don't want to be limited by deficiencies on the staff you have now. Your expectations should be rooted in what’s reasonable for a good performer, not what’s limited to reasonable for the team you inherited. If you have a mediocre team, asking what’s reasonable for them will just get you mediocre results. Instead, ask what’s reasonable for you to accomplish with a good, or great, team.

That said, don’t judge too quickly. It’s easy to assume that people who haven’t been performing will continue under-performing – and that could very well turn out to be the case. But give people some time to understand your expectations, and some of them may surprise you. It’s possible that they weren’t given clear expectations in the past, or that the previous manager just had a completely different vision than you did, but that some people could actually thrive with the change you’re bringing. So don’t write people off until you see how they respond to clear expectations from you.

To judge that fairly, you should also make sure they have the tools they need to succeed. If they’ve been hamstrung by outdated software, lack of training, vague feedback, or lack of resources, you’ll want to remedy that before making a final assessment. You might find that a few quick coaching sessions will get someone where you need them to be, or that your team’s productivity goes way up after you clear up a roadblock that’s existed in a workflow process.

Be especially hands-on during this period of change. This is probably going to be a tough period for your team, including the people who you want to stick around. The worst thing you can do is be an absent manager during this time. Make sure that you’re checking in regularly and giving frequent feedback.

From there, if you don’t start seeing the improvement you need, start having candid conversations with people about what you need to see from them in order to keep them on your team. You might get pushback, especially from people who don't understand why the bar is changing. Explain what you’re aiming for as transparently as you can. You might use language like, “I hear you that it’s a higher bar, but it’s one I’m committed to seeing us meet because ___.”

After you go through this process, if some people aren’t delivering what you need, be as open as you can about where they’re falling short and what the consequences of that will be. But make sure you’re as kind as possible if you need to transition people out. Give people lead time if you can, help them with their job searches, and push to be as generous with things like severance as you can. Not only is this the right thing to do, but your remaining team members are going to be watching how you handle this.

One last thing: Make sure to keep your boss in the loop during this process. You’re likely to have some turnover in the coming months, and you and your boss should be aligned behind the scenes about what’s going on and why.

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