Paula is a new manager. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that she was handed a leaky bag. The branch she will now manage has some long-standing norms she sees as unproductive and possibly unethical. Staff members routinely spend working hours on personal projects. Employees neglect customers to take extended lunch breaks. In addition, Paula’s predecessor routinely rated everyone a “5” on a five-point scale, but she was struggling to find a single “5” in the entire group.
As the individual and group performance picture became clear to Paula, she began to pine for the simplicity of her life as an individual contributor.
Most new managers quickly see things they’d like to change. New leaders are advised to take some time to listen and appreciate what is, rather than make their own mark at the risk of appearing self-centered or authoritarian. But what should you do when the need for change is profound and urgent? How can you minimize resistance while honoring your fundamental duty?
There’s a difference between addressing bad behavior and changing bad norms. The first requires confronting the inappropriate meanderings of one or two individuals. The second is about resetting the norms of an entire group. Here are some suggestions for new managers who see the need for quick and fundamental change.
Is it me or is it them? First, get feedback from trusted sources to ensure your concerns are a matter of principle not of taste. For example, Paula should consult HR to ensure her new standards don’t conflict with company policy. She might also tap into colleagues who fit three criteria: (1) having a view of her work group; (2) having a sense of broader company norms; and (3) telling her the truth — even if she doesn’t like it. If the problems are open-and-shut violations of policy, notify HR or other appropriate channels. But if the issues are more in the gray zone, move to the next step.
Establish air cover. The big problem with bad norms is you don’t know how high and wide the acceptance runs. If, for example, your peer managers in this new location give tacit approval to personal indulgences during work hours, it’s much harder to establish new norms. It’ll be even harder if those above you have enabled the behavior. If that is the case, then you’ll need to have a conversation with peer managers and your boss before addressing your work group.
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If it turns out that you need to align with your boss and peers, gather facts before broaching the topic. Collect data about the frequency of the problems and do some rough calculations of the effect on costs, customer service, or other important business results. When you approach your colleagues and boss with the business case for making changes, be sure not to come across as indignant or self-righteous — after all, they may be part of the problem. If you make it an ethical crusade, you might be dismissed as a zealot rather than respected as an effective leader.
Your goal in these conversations is to establish common cause — or at least active consent — with them. Don’t push faster than they’re willing to go. Let the data do the talking, and let them come to conclusions with you about what to do.
When you’ve confirmed support, get it in writing. Emails are fine, but let those who weigh in know you intend to cite their position.
Make it public. Next, start a public dialogue in your group about the concerns. Bad norms are sustained by silence; no one discusses misbehavior when everyone is guilty. Openly and publicly acknowledge the frequency of the concerns. Avoid the risk of making it about your moral superiority by acknowledging your own vulnerability to negative norms. But don’t shrink from taking a principled stand. Spend less time attacking the transgression and more on its tangible effects — on customers, colleagues, owners, or others who deserve better.
Then let the feedback marinade briefly. Don’t let it sit too long, or you’ll allow time for opposition to organize. For example, if you’re sharing the concerns in an all-hands meeting, let the group know you’re open to feedback and that you’ll schedule a follow-up meeting at the end of the week to hear more input. Assure them that if there are potential unintended consequences of the changes you propose, you sincerely want to understand them. But also let them know you’ve thought about this carefully and that you’ll need to be convinced that risks raised are worth considering.
Make reference to your alignment with those above and beside you, but only sparingly. If you overdo it, you look weak. If you underdo it, you look vulnerable. Strike the right balance by sharing your own argument first, then referencing others as support, not permission.
Focus on the future. So long as the issues don’t cross legal or HR lines, let the group know bygones are bygones. The past is irrelevant; the future is all that matters. But put them on notice that change must be immediate.
Watch for transgressions and prosecute calmly but decisively. First, watch for compliance. If you see it, call it out and praise it. But expect that your mettle will be tested. It may be that people transgress out of inertia rather than intention, but motive doesn’t matter. The first time someone crosses a line, your audience is not that individual, it is the rest of the group. Human beings are social learners — we discern social norms mostly by watching what happens to others when they conform or violate them. If you’re not willing to apply a bit of heat, you’ll sow confusion about your new stated norm.
When you call out or sanction the misstep, be calm but decisive. Don’t take it personally — it isn’t about defying your authority. This isn’t about you; it’s about the standard. Calmly and deliberately confront the behavior and impose appropriate consequences.
Don’t neglect accomplices. Confront those who were aware of the infraction but said nothing. You need to communicate not only your desire for new behavior but also your expectation that others will join you in encouraging the agreed-upon values. Change occurs at the speed with which peers begin to nudge peers about the new standard.
By following these steps, you’ll find a clear path to raise the bar without alienating your new team. Likely, your leadership style will be a night-and-day shift from what people are used to, but stick to these principles and you’ll be able to lead through the change. Stick to your guns. It’s why you were selected to lead in the first place.