First-Class Coach

I've inherited a team of 15 people. Their previous boss was lenient and turned a blind eye when they failed to do what they'd promised or missed deadlines.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I'm trying to change this, but they think I'm unreasonable and are refusing to play ball. How can I turn this situation around?

A: The trouble with failing to manage performance in the way the previous incumbent did is that it not only lets down the department and the company, it ultimately lets down the individuals in the department. Most people really want to do a good job and don't even mind being stretched to work harder, if they feel they are learning, understand how they are making a difference and have some emotional reward for going the extra mile.

But in the absence of these benefits, most will settle for an easy life, doing the minimum and keeping the unutilised time for socialising.

It's a bit like eating a Mars bar and not bothering to take exercise.

In the short term, it feels good but, because it conflicts with a desire to be fitter and a different shape and size, it leads to disappointment, guilt and loss of self-respect.

Whether you succeed in turning round performance will depend not just on what you do but on how you do it. First, structure expectations. Talk to your staff as a group about the challenges and opportunities that face the organisation, and stress that you believe the department is capable of making a much bigger contribution to success. Mention the dangers of underperforming as well as the rewards of success. Let them understand that you are committed to helping the department raise its game.

Having communicated how their work fits into the bigger picture, it's time to engage with each individual. Ask them separately how they'd rate their own performance and how they think it might be improved. Find out if there are any structural obstacles to improvement or any additional resources that would help them. But make sure by the end of each meeting that each person knows what they need to do to meet your expectations, and set a date to review progress.

Use these sessions to assess the capabilities and skills of each person.

You could apply the 'Skill and Will' matrix to do this - a quartered box with high and low skills on one axis, and high and low will on the other.

You can plot where each member of the group falls. Is one person very capable (high on skill) but with a poor attitude (low on will)? Is another perfectly willing but inexperienced (low on skill)? Depending on where they fall, you can help them by providing training to increase skill, or by acknowledging their capability and showing appreciation, starting to shift their attitude to a more positive one.

A client of mine was in a similar position to you, having been brought in to turn round a poorly performing sales team. Though his instincts were right, he encountered problems at first. He spoke to the department about his goals for improvement but failed to engage them individually.

In his irritation with the overall sloppiness of his new department, he blamed them all equally. Tarring them all with the same brush caused resentment throughout the group, particularly among the more conscientious and hard-working. In trying to goad them into greater effectiveness, he actually demotivated them and increased their hostility towards him.

It was only when he got to know his people better and understood how each was performing that he began to get the results he was looking for.

By showing interest in individuals and partnering them in their development, he won their respect. He was also able to isolate the few who remained unco-operative and tell them they needed to shape up or ship out. Today, he has a much more capable team, with a strong, positive attitude and much-improved sales figures.

Your tone of voice and manner is crucial in this: if you look and sound like a critical parent, you are likely to evoke a childish response in the group - of rebellion or fear. The more you can treat them as adults, bringing facts and logic to the situation rather than judgments and emotions, the easier it will be for them to relate to you as a person rather than as a representative of authority they've become used to flouting.

For now, their loyalty will be to the group, not to you - you will have to earn this over time. Meanwhile, don't expect your attempts to move them out of their comfortable lethargy to make you universally popular.

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