Help me be the new (new) manager
January 4, 2017 9:44 AM   Subscribe

I've been made a manager. But the team hasn't been managed and doesn't want to be.

Just before Xmas, I was hired onto a new job and unexpectedly made manager of a small team. It's a mixed scientific / technical / IT environment in a relatively young but flourishing company, I was only expecting to be a bench scientist, there's lots of scope for me to follow leads and develop new areas, so the big picture is all great.

BUT: I spent December getting to know the team and projects and there's already some worrying aspects. A lot of the team work by messing about: ambling in at any time, puttering about on any old task, socialising. I'm in favour of letting people work in their own best ways, but much of this is blatant slacking off. Many of them can't tell me clearly what they're working on or what the timelines and schedules are. People promise to do things and then just don't do them. They don't answer emails, show up to meetings late or not at all, and when asked for progress reports offer weak excuses or get evasive. One in particular just rolls her eyes when asked what she is doing.

I've gone softly-softly so far, but the culture has got to change. With this level of disorganisation, I doubt we can deliver on our current projects (I've already caught two minor projects that had been silently dropped because no one was chasing them up) and developing new leads is going to be next to impossible.

So, how do I turn this team around?

Complicating factors:

- There's been several previous abortive attempts at organisation, which were abandoned or puttered out after 6-9 months
- My take on the team members is that they're good at their specialities but the old-timers have gotten used to not being managed while the new ones have taken on the work culture. They're definitely working below their potential.
- I'm told some of the team have legitimate grievances with some past treatment, having been promised training or particular projects, or just being overloaded with work
- While I'm responsible for the team, I'm clearly acting as a proxy for upper management: budgets, hiring / firing / discipline is handled "above" and outside me
- My take on current workload is that it's acceptable if the team were more organised and focused, although in the past there's apparently been several crazy drop-everything crisis periods in the past.
- This shouldn't make any difference, but it's in Wales
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
How much are they (and you) on the chopping block? Can you honestly tell them "Look, folks, if we don't get Project A done by April 1st and Project B done by June 1st, then all of us will be fired. Don't believe me? Here's an email from my boss's boss's boss saying, quote, 'If your team doesn't deliver these two projects on time and on budget, the team will be terminated', end quote."?

Because if they've successfully resisted other people's efforts to manage them with no negative repercussions, then they've been trained to ignore management, and without repercussions, all you can do is reinforce that training. Get friendly with the person who has budgeting and staffing authority, because it's going to end up you or (one of) them.
posted by Etrigan at 9:58 AM on January 4, 2017 [6 favorites]

Being a manager without any power to hire/fire/discipline your reports isn't being a manager, it's being a scapegoat.

You are not going to be liked by these people if their current job is "come in, fart around, and get paid regardless." You'll need to start with the horribly painful "what is it you actually DO here?" conversation in one-on-one meetings. Then set specific measurable goals, and some schedule for progress reports, with repercussions/awards based on missing or meeting those goals.
posted by Mr. Big Business at 10:18 AM on January 4, 2017 [30 favorites]

I half remember a quote which I believe was attributed to Churchill which says "A Welshman will do anything you ask of him as long as you tell him why"

When you're a manager in a sick system all you can do is be honest and hope they respect you enough to not be dicks. Tell them their current situation is untenable as evidenced by the fact you've been asked to manage them. They can either work with you so everyone is happy or work against you until you're replaced by someone worse.
posted by fullerine at 10:23 AM on January 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

Creating schedules, timelines, and progress reports is work. If you're already working at full capacity on other things, being asked to increase your workload by 50% by a new manager can be exasperating. Especially if you assume, as many people do, that that is the responsibility of the manager.

Meet with each person individually and determine what their responsibilities are and what they work on on a daily basis. Give them some warning of this meeting so they can prepare the information for you. Then prioritize their responsibilities so they know which are the most important or urgent, and ask them to provide regular progress reports on the top priorities. Try to allow some of their lesser responsibilities to fall by the wayside as a result of this increased workload.

Lack of clear direction is as distasteful for workers as it is for management. Make sure you provide that direction. But don't insist that they "do everything" without setting priorities. They may be overworked, or not, but you have to determine if that's the case, and deal with it.
posted by yath at 10:31 AM on January 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

What was the mission you were charged with when you were put in charge of this team?

What authority over hiring/firing/promoting/demoting were you given?

If the answer to either or both is: none, then you've taken on the role of scapegoat.

There needs to be a mission and goals set at the corporate level and you need to be given authority to do what is necessary to meet the goal(s).

If your team members cannot get on board, you need a new team.

Three things you are looking for from your team: can do, will do, and team fit. CAN they do the job they are tasked with? WILL they do the job they are tasked with? Do they fit within the TEAM to meet the goals?

The conversation about your skills as a manager is the next step - for now, focus on what the goals are and what authority you have been given. Everything else progresses from there.
posted by tgrundke at 10:44 AM on January 4, 2017 [5 favorites]

Being a manager without any power to hire/fire/discipline your reports isn't being a manager, it's being a scapegoat.

I very much agree with this statement. I had this problem at my last job. I was managing teams of workers who were supposed to fix up vacant apartments but I had no authority to discipline or reward them. They had pretty much been unsupervised and were used to taking long breaks, not showing up and doing other side work jobs while on the clock for this company. When I told my boss that I didn't feel I could get them to work under these conditions I was told that I needed to use my personality. I realized this was a no-win situation for me and left the company and in fact the whole industry. The only good thing is it inspired me to go back to school and finish up my degree.

If you are not getting support from your higher-ups it is difficult to imagine this turning out in a good way. However if you are getting support maybe you can ask them to have a bonus system for finishing projects on time word to be able to fire or transfer people who are not doing anything.

It is very difficult to get people who have been slacking off with no consequences to become motivated in working. I think after doing that for long enough people get to a point where they consider it their absolute right. What will probably be needed is a big shake-up of some sort.
posted by Melsky at 10:51 AM on January 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you are not doing one on one meetings with your team, I would set up 1/2 hour weekly meetings with each member and keep them religiously.

I was in a similar situation in a previous role. Weekly one on ones helped me make changes, one meeting at a time. Keeping good notes for each meeting ended up being a great tool for setting goals, feedback and tracking progress on projects and training. I would recommend listening to the Manager Tools podcasts on One on Ones (a great rec I got from my own askme question); if you find them helpful, move on to the rest of the basics - Feedback, Coaching, Delegation:
posted by OrderOctopoda at 11:16 AM on January 4, 2017

I'd take this in steps.

First, go meet with each of them individually. Find out what their history actually is directly. Any desire to get training or projects that haven't as yet been fulfilled? How is their current work load? Can they help you understand what they are currently focused on? Helping them feel heard is likely part of your role -- I suspect you have the ability, for example, to recommend workload redistribution, training, and project reassignment. Also, clearly explain what you've been asked to produce by management, and ask for their help with what you have to do, e.g. arrange meetings or set project deadlines.

Second, use a lot of positive reinforcement. Praise people who are stepping up in terms of getting the work done, and see if you can figure out a way to make rewards concrete, like recognizing them to upper management, or coffee coupons.

Third, gently let people know in your individual meetings why group meetings are going to be important, and then offer something tempting at them, i.e. food. Like pizza or pastries. People are so much better at showing up when they get to do something enjoyable like eat tasty food.

Fourth, set up some way for everyone to monitor each other. E.g. an electronic board to show task completion by individuals on a particular project. Then they'll get on each other.

Finally, very carefully, see if you really have dead wood, versus just some current slacking off. If someone really declines to perform, I'd use the usual graduated steps, starting with a heart to heart, clearly laid out expectations, and a review date to see how they are doing against those expectations.
posted by bearwife at 11:19 AM on January 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

budgets, hiring / firing / discipline is handled "above" and outside me
This may mean you have no power at all, but it could very well mean that you have input on these issues but ultimately the final decision comes down to those above you. You'll find out soon if your opinions matter at all to the people who can fire your team. If it turns out they want you to take the blame but refuse to back you up, then you walk. However, if they are willing back you up on the discipline, then you have more power to manage these people than the people above who have labelled you a scapegoat.
posted by soelo at 12:18 PM on January 4, 2017

Brave Sir Robin ran away. Bravely, bravely ran away.
posted by Bruce H. at 1:12 PM on January 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

While I'm responsible for the team, I'm clearly acting as a proxy for upper management: budgets, hiring / firing / discipline is handled "above" and outside me

It sounds like you are less of a manager, and more of a project manager. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, as it looks like the team really needs it, but it's important for you to clarify with the higher ups what your particular responsibilities are given the limitations to your authority.

I would start by getting a handle on the current outside commitments: what projects does the team owe, to whom, and when? Then, based on your one-on-ones or other interactions with the team, figure out who is doing what for each project. The tricky part will then be evaluating where the gaps are. You might get commitments from team members that they will meet milestones that they can't, but because you don't have a history with them, you may not realize that's impossible. But at least try.

If you do identify gaps at this stage, you need to go to the team's customers and negotiate new deadlines. Those customers will appreciate knowing that things are going to slip earlier, rather than later. It's possible that those customers can provide you with the political capital that you need to request more people, training for the current people, and/or different people.

After you've got this sorted, then you can try to make cultural changes that will hopefully make sense for the team. Start with things you can do on your own: maybe a weekly status email (that you visit with each team member to collect status updates for -- no forcing them to do new data entry right away). Then start nudging people in mutually beneficial directions: Hey Jim, it seems like you're really close to finishing the widget for Project A, if I could get you dedicated time on the Widget Creator for a week, do you think you could focus on it? I think polishing the Whatzit for Project B could wait. Hey Jenny, I got Jim to agree to freeing up the Whatzit Polisher for a week, do you think... etc.

The last bit will be the hardest, I would imagine. Especially in a rudderless org of smart people who are used to doing their own thing in their own way. Your best bets are to be honest, show them that you understand/appreciate the work that they do, and that you need their help to change things for the better (so there are fewer panic/crises, and interesting work keeps flowing in)
posted by sparklemotion at 1:14 PM on January 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think there's an extremely high probability that at least some of the people in your group are craving some competent leadership and will welcome it as long as you are honest and respectful of them. There may be others who just want to slack off and get paid for it. Figuring out who is in which group will be a big priority, and you'll gain the respect of the group when you call out the slackers. Celebrate successes as a group, and try to find opportunities to acknowledge key individual contributions without diminishing the rest of the group. It will be very tempting to make sure everyone knows that you don't have hiring/firing authority and try to play the role of good cop, but you'll undermine your own authority if you do so. You'll be better off if you let it be known that you don't plan to let others cause you to fail in the role you happen to have on the team.
posted by LowellLarson at 2:24 PM on January 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Being a manager without any power to hire/fire/discipline your reports isn't being a manager, it's being a scapegoat.

Eh... well only if you're not backed up by those who do have that power. You're being asked to be the eyes and ears - and mouth - of management. I don't think it's as dire as it sounds.

You're doing the right thing so far. "What are you working on?" is the exact right first question. "Can you tell me a bit about your plan of attack?" is a good second. That's a basis to start developing milestones. Ideally, they would develop their own for you once you make that the expectation, or at least the next one they're working toward right now. All your people will resent this; don't worry about it. Most will grudgingly cooperate, some will not. Don't worry about it.

Your next step is to communicate what you find out to your management in a coherent "state of the department" report. This is where you find out if they have your back, and where your employees quickly find out they had better get on board if they're not. When your report says "Dave is working on X, estimates 80% complete to milestone Y, needs Z resources. Suzy [similar]. Ted refuses to disclose to me what he's doing," how do you think that's going to go over? Ted either finds out in a loud phone call he'd better play ball with you, or you find out it's ok and you're just the reporter and tracker of the zoo animals.

Which can be ok, too. As long as you keep up the honest reports about what you're doing and what results you're getting, they can't claim to be surprised or unhappy about it.

Speaking of resources, there's a powerful weapon for you if all resources have to come from you. Ted: I need a thousand dollars. You: I'm not convinced you do. [awkward silence]
posted by ctmf at 4:37 PM on January 4, 2017

My comment above would be an excellent thing to discuss with your immediate boss ahead of time. "Do you want my recommendation for priorities and resource assignments, or do you want me to just do it? If someone's not meeting expectations, how do you want me to handle it - just report it to you and let you deal with it, or try to intervene myself, or...?"
posted by ctmf at 4:56 PM on January 4, 2017

I also don't know how

"A lot of the team work by messing about: ambling in at any time, puttering about on any old task, socialising"


"just being overloaded with work"

can be true at the same time. Someone's got a perception or expectation problem.
posted by ctmf at 5:03 PM on January 4, 2017

While I'm responsible for the team, I'm clearly acting as a proxy for upper management: budgets, hiring / firing / discipline is handled "above" and outside me
This appears to be for a 'project coordinator' (not a manager) for the upper management; a mere point of contact for updates. Recommend scheduling a meeting with your direct manager to understand your specific duties, responsibilities and expectations; get it all in writing, of course. If you are expected to manage people and processes, then you need to be given the authority and backing to do so.
posted by mountainblue at 5:57 PM on January 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've never managed, but I have experienced having a lack of respect for "hey, everybody, here's your new boss." Perhaps you can do a kind of slow fade where you primarily do one-on-ones about current work, but new work is handled in a managed, structured, and delegated fashion. Eventually, as my theory goes, all of the tasks become managed work.
posted by rhizome at 12:36 PM on January 5, 2017

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