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How to Work with People Who Arrive Wounded and Need to Improve

Between layoffs, reorganizations, and people being promoted into different work groups, it’s pretty common to inherit team members you haven’t chosen or about whom you know little or nothing. Some of these folks might not perform as expected or may have learned poor habits from prior managers. This can be frustrating when you’re trying to get your whole team up to speed, absorb the stresses of organizational shifts, or make good on project targets with a changing cast of team members. 

One of my clients recently vented to me about this kind of situation. He didn’t have a good feeling about a transferred employee who appeared not to know the basics about the company’s business model or goals, seemed passive, and wasn’t seeking help. It didn’t seem likely that the guy would amount to much.

I reminded my client that it’s the leader’s job to establish direction and meaning for any employee under their care, so he needed to give the guy a fair shot. Unfortunately, this meant overinvesting upfront to see if there was any real potential there and whether my client could repair any damage done by prior managers. I reminded him that this new transfer didn’t know him, had no reason to trust him, and had no idea what he was expected to know.

Step 1: Be Welcoming

I compared the new team member (a little dramatically) to an abused puppy at the shelter, cowering in the corner, hoping no one would notice or hit him. If previous treatment made this employee feel unsafe or untrusting, his ability to learn or perform was probably compromised. To assess his capability, it was crucial to separate the typical exercise of weighing output, performance from a kind of emotional or psychological plan. I suggested that my client use two different approaches to show the new transfer that he was worth both investing in and getting to know.

The first approach was for my client to make a point of greeting the employee and checking in with him almost every day for the first few weeks—in effect, welcoming him to work and expressing gladness to have him there rather than brushing him off. This is particularly important if you know that a prior manager has not been developmental or shown supportive interest. The second form of outreach was to make it plain that if the new team member needed something, all he had to do was use my client’s preferred channel of texting, and my client would respond promptly. 

Step 2: Build Relationship

While my client was building the transfer’s confidence and trust in the relationship, he also needed to ensure there was progress in performance. I suggested that he provide context about both how he leads and the work itself. It makes sense to put the true situation on the table, saying something like: “You and I don’t really know each other, and I don’t know how much information you’ve been given about what we need to accomplish and what your part in it is. So I’ll explain how we work on this team, what our team goals are, and what part I expect you to play. Stop me if you know this already, but I don’t want to hold you responsible for background you’ve never been given before.”

After outreach, you can structure plans for the short and long term. Start with a 30-day plan followed by a 90-day plan and an 18-month plan. This kind of trajectory will let you see clearly if the new team member is picking up properly, needs more guidance, or is not going to be able to meet expectations.

The Short-Term Plan

The 30-day plan should begin with knowledge transfer rather than achievements. The goal is to assess whether the new transfer has the skills and capability to pick up your thinking and move forward with it; plus, you’ll want to make sure the employee understands the business’s major principles. A particularly helpful exercise is to spend time thinking together. Don’t expect the team member to have good or even relevant ideas, but showing that you can think together helps demonstrate that he’s part of the team, rather than a puppet being dictated to; thinking together also lets you see how the employee sizes up situations and develops rationales for dealing with them. 

Similarly, you should continue building relationship by looking for ways to integrate the new transfer with the rest of the team. What you don’t want to do is have inaccurate expectations at the beginning, assuming the employee knows more than he does and therefore constantly having to make corrections .

In the Longer Term 

The 90-day and 18-month plans should focus more on accomplishment. These plans don’t have to be detailed or formal at the outset, but they can lay out your expectations and help ensure everything’s on track. If this employee can’t carry the load even with intensive relationship-building and context-setting, don’t cover for them or string them—or yourself—along, hoping they’ll do better. Having plans on record gives you a standard for evaluation. 

This is hard, time-consuming work, but it’s the work of leadership rather than babysitting, and it gives shifted employees the best chance possible rather than letting them become organizational casualties. And a team with this kind of grounding and growth can do exceptional work.

Onward and upward—

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