Keeping the people on board

A new manager is frequently heralded as a new broom, with all sorts of expectations set up among team and colleagues in anticipation of his or her arrival. You can probably remember the sense of mixed anticipation and dread with which you welcomed your last manager.

The hapless new manager already faces an uphill task making people feel comfortable enough to share information and carry on working at pace until they, the new manager, are up to speed. So, it is critical to keep keep people on side and not to inadvertently cause them to switch off.

Key pointers include:

Don’t assume that the status quo is due to ignorance

If things don’t look right to you, they probably don’t look right to your direct reports and other colleagues either. Find out how things got to this point. You may find that people need to express their frustration, even their grief, about what they have not been able to deliver. They may also have many of the answers (even in some cases fully-worked briefs and business cases) to resolving the situation, meaning you can bag some early wins.

People love to be listened to

Just as we are a product of our experience and know-how, your team and other colleagues will be proud of what they know (even if they have not had the opportunity to use it), and will want to show it off. Win trust and respect by listening deeply, asking plenty of questions and showing that you believe and respect what is being said. Be aware that, depending on the culture of the organisation, individuals may not have had the opportunity to share these ideas before, much less put them into practice, so don’t be too quick to judge them as slow or indecisive.

Find your heroes

Within the work force there are almost always people of non- or lower managerial grades who know how things work, and who advise, support and coach others to make sure that what needs to be done is done. They often start early, work late, and have an over-pronounced work ethic, but they may also have a poor opinion of management, who will typically know less than they do about the workings of the department, and may have relied heavily on them without providing much reward. This person may present as rather grumpy and unco-operative in early meetings. They know their worth, and it is up to you to win their trust and set the relationship.

Acknowledge their superior knowledge in operational matters. If you are asked by them to do a thing, do it. Whatever attitude you are faced with, short of outright insubordination, run with it for the time being. Unless you intend to learn their job in sufficient detail to be able to do it yourself, keep this person on side. They are likely to be a goldmine of knowledge, insight and ideas, but a nightmare to get on the wrong side of.

To win their trust, look carefully for something they need – it might be some kit or equipment they’ve been doing a long time without, or a piece of process that is a bugbear. Notice it, and sort it out. It means you have shown a genuine interest, and may be worthy of some respect.

Keep an open mind

How will people react to you if they think you’ve already made up your mind? Highly intelligent people have a hard time covering up their thoughts and conclusions, but not doing so will make people you talk to feel as though they are wasting their time. Learn the skill of Socratic questioning to help draw people out, and make sure they are able to express any views they have on the organisation and its issues. Although it may feel odd not to be the one explaining their viewpoint, this technique can be enormously productive and get the best out of teams. Documents of the time show that this technique was used by John F. Kennedy in successfully handling the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

Be careful of loose talk

Even if you are used to shooting the breeze with your own team as a way of working through issues, be careful of what you say in a new organisation. Commenting on the performance of individuals or groups can get you into trouble – particularly with people you do not know, who may have other loyalties. People will be waiting for your pronouncements and they will take them literally (they will also add what you say to what they already know, and that may be a lot more – culturally and politically, than you know). So, until you are ready to make an announcement, say nothing that could be misinterpreted or quoted in a way that you would not want it to be.


Expect people to be defensive or in denial about their part in any poor performance. It is hard to admit to a new manager and your peer group that you may have had something to do with something that failed. As far as that person knows, an admission of failure may lead to a loss of respect and trust, demotion or even sacking.

Reassure direct reports about what will happen if they openly discuss failings, and what will not. Make sure that those who communicate openly and are willing to be vulnerable to others’ comments are rewarded,. Refusal to participate should be obviously excluded from any praise or reward.

If, several meetings in, you find that people are still unwilling to accept any responsibility for their part in what is going wrong, adopt another tack.

Harvard professor Chris Argyris espouses an approach intended to de-fuse defensiveness by using a ‘case study’ approach. (Argyris) The manager sets out on one side of a sheet what he’d like to discuss and on the other what he thinks will happen in the room if he does discuss it. The case study then becomes the focus of the discussion, leading both parties to learn what is behind the behaviours they have been observing up to now.

Encourage open discussion

Once discussions have opened up, ask about the challenges faced and the actions taken in any given situation (analysing to understand, rather than problem-solving):

  • What barriers were there?
  • Do the managers and staff already know what’s wrong?
  • What would they change if they could?
  • What action would they take if the barriers were removed?
  • Who put the barriers up? Who owns the barriers?
  • Who is championing what needs to be done?
  • Who is getting in the way?

Let the debate go on for as long as there is energy in the room. Give everyone the opportunity to have their say, and allow there to be a certain amount of confusion as well as contradictory opinions and conclusions. Debate flourishes where there is doubt, and where there are multiple viewpoints and ideas.

Banish assumptions

Just as we as managers need to guard against making assumptions, we need to guard against our people doing the same thing. Especially where you have people in the room who do not know each other well, or who have long-time antipathy toward each other , there is the possibility of clashing which can get in the way of productive discussion.

One way of re-fusing these kinds of clashes is to invite someone espousing a strong point of view to explain the thinking that got them to that viewpoint: ‘Take me through your thought process’. Often, this will surface irrational or unreasonable assumptions which underlie their point of view, and help to dissolve it. Click here to read more about Professor Chris Argyris’s Ladders of Inference technique.