New manager needs strategy to lead change

Dear Joan:
I’ve been in my position for a little over a year. I was recruited from the outside to come in and make some pretty dramatic changes. The former manager allowed things to deteriorate. Poor performers were allowed to get away with their behavior and some very big changes were being introduced by the organization that he was not managing well.  To complicate things further, the culture here (prior to the former manager) had been very anti-management.    

The problem I am finding is that I am being asked by my boss to make these changes but my employees are fighting it all the way. I’m getting sullen compliance, at best. I have tried to involve them by telling them what I am doing and why but they complain that I’m not communicating enough. Any advice?  

You are going to have to execute a new strategy. Right now, you are alone against the team.  

Divide your employees into three groups on a piece of paper:

  1. The most positive people who are good performers.
  2. The fence sitters who are waiting to see what’s in it for them.
  3. The most negative people who may never change their attitudes. 
Stop trying to convert the negative people in group three. If you’re like most people, you are putting too much focus on this group, with the hope of turning them around. They will drain all your energy and enjoy watching you twist in the wind.  

Instead, put your focus on the first group, with some attention to the second group. Here’s why: You need to create some positive momentum and your best bet is to start with the people who may be heading in that direction already.  

Once the second group sees that there is something in it for them to jump off the fence, a few of them will start joining group number one. It’s likely that some of the negative people are trying to win converts to their hostile camp. If you stop playing into the hands of group three, and instead, give your attention and rewards to group number one, you will have a much better chance of succeeding.  

Here are some ways to execute your strategy: 

  • Share your power with them. Invite them to help you figure it out together. The more you wrestle them and try to win, the more you will lose. Instead, adopt a strategy of telling your team everything you know, as soon as you know it. Explain the business realities to them, so they understand why changes are needed. Choose a few of your strongest performers with the best attitudes to take a leadership role in doing research, leading a task force group and attending planning meetings with you (or in your place) in other parts of the organization. Ask these informal leaders to share what they are learning/doing in staff meetings. Make sure you recognize them privately and publicly but don’t lay it on too thick, for fear they will look like “teacher’s pet.”  
  • Meet with each one of them privately. Have a heart to heart conversation using three questions that each of you will answer about the other: What can I do more of? What can I do less of? What should I keep the same?  Listen carefully and respectfully without getting defensive. Take notes and really hear what they area telling you. Be honest about what you need from them, taking extra care to ask instead of demand.  
For example, “You’re one of the most experienced technicians in this department. That’s why your input on these changes is so important. I’d like you to offer more suggestions during meetings and I’d like you to play a leadership role in implementing these changes.” 
  • Allow employees’ ideas to be tested, even if you aren’t convinced they will work. If you recognize their initiative and allow them to try something (within parameters, of course), they will find out for themselves, rather than you squelching their idea. They will become more educated—and willing to try something different—if you aren’t perceived as the barrier. 
  • Recognize any employee’s attempt to do something right or try something new. Reinforcement goes a long way toward creating willing employees. They want their efforts to be noticed.  
Set expectations and limits for poor performers and hold them accountable. Be firm and respectful but don’t let them walk all over you—or their peers.  

Changing an organization’s culture takes a steady but light touch. It’s not for the faint of heart. Remember, people want to be involved. They want to be recognized for their contributions and they want to be on the winning team. Create that environment and you will be amazed at the results. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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