what to do when you inherit a struggling team

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 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 response 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 If they’ve been hamstrung by outdated software, lack of training, vague feedback, or lack of resources, you’ll want to remedy that before making a final assessment.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 regularlyand 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.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 6 comments… read them below }

  1. jarofbluefire

    This is a great outline of how to handle this all kind of situation. In most situations, clarity, patience, and transparency are all good things.

    I’d add a note to the part about keeping one’s boss in the loop: Know your organization. It may be that the struggling team/certain members are an already existing issue because of a cultural reluctance/inability to transition underperformers out. If, ultimately, you will be kept from letting anyone go, that could change your plan and the conversations from the beginning.

  2. cv

    I second the advice to not judge too quickly. I worked at a small nonprofit during a leadership transition, and I think the new CEO thought we were all half competent because we didn’t take much initiative and asked for input or approval on even minor issues. But the problem wasn’t the staff, it was that the outgoing CEO was a serious micromanager who had kept us on pretty tight leashes. Once we’d had a chance to get used to our new CEO’s more hands-off management style and we felt more comfortable as he encouraged us to take on stretch projects, our productivity as a team skyrocketed.

  3. Amy

    I inherited a team that behaved unprofessionally. The reason I was there is that their old boss was fired for letting them make up their own rules. I was unpopular but I think they got that I was raising the standards, not just giving them grief, and things in general improved. There was one problematic person whom I identified as one of the root causes of trouble — very stubborn, uncooperative, and something of a power-grabber. She had intimidated my predecessor and tried to stymie me too. My boss thought I was exaggerating, but the job wasn’t for me anyway and I moved on. I found out later that my boss learned first-hand what I’d been dealing with. I can feel good that I did what I could and the new boss inherited a staff that wanted to work at a higher level. (My boss moved the problem person to a different environment — too late for me, but also helping out my successor)

    1. JustMe

      Amy, I have to ask what industry are you in? You mean both yourself and the team’s old manager couldn’t put problem employee in their place. To top that off, all your boss did was move her to another team? Sounds to me like a pretty dysfunctional place to work. Glad you moved on.

      1. Brooke

        Amy’s description doesn’t seem at all unusual to me – I’ve seen this happen in multiple industries.

  4. Raven

    I wish I could print this out and give t0 my new gm. He’s very vocal about his opinions of his current team, which is that we’re idiots. Are there slackers? Yes, absolutely, but it isn’t okay to lump all us veteran employees together.

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