The manager should try to minimize that uncertainty for the team. Still, it’s natural for people to evaluate whether they still want to be on the team. Why?
Change is Scary
Think about times in life when large changes happen. Maybe it’s the death of a family member. Maybe it’s moving to a new place to live, or starting a new job. All of these events naturally invite self-reflection. How are things going? People ask themselves if they want to continue doing what they are doing. These are times of self-reflection. Change is stressful, and more change is experienced, the more stressful it is. People react to this stress by making even more changes, in the form of big decisions.
Why is getting a new manager a high stress event? First off, the team’s relationship with their manager is the number one indicator of whether they are happy at work. Being happy at work is a leading factor on general contentedness. How will they prove themselves to a new boss? What will their next performance evaluation look like? If they had a great trusting relationship with their last manager, they may be worried that they will not be able to replicate that trust. It’s easy to assume that the unknown will probably be worse than the status quo. In particular, if they’re working on a specific promotion plan or timeline with their previous manager, they might be afraid that this could be reset.
Now, put yourself in the new manager’s shoes. You need a smooth transition plan. Ideally, there is a period of time where you are starting to have one on ones with your new team, but everyone is still reporting to the old manager. These could be three-way conversations, where the previous manager highlights a person’s accomplishments, growth plan and path forward, with you in the room. You can use high bandwidth in-person communication to create continuity between managers.
As a team member, you may be apprehensive of changing to a new manager if you feel it will disrupt the work you are doing. Previously, you knew for sure what you would be working on in the coming months and weeks. As the new incoming manager, you probably don’t intend to radically change the teams roadmap. But, you need to make sure that the team knows that! Be explicit about the fact that on-going work will not change. Set expectations that you don’t intend on making any big changes, at least for a few months.
The team may also be worried that you will change how work is done. Again, you want to commit to not making any big changes for a specific period of time. If the team is operating at a six week cadence with certain artifacts and regular recurring meetings, you should keep all of those things intact. Don’t try to introduce new process, which will just pile up even more perceived change risk for the team.
You want to pay particular attention to the leaders that are remaining with the team. Maybe there is a great tech lead or product manager who will continue to be on the team. You want to call out, in front of the entire team, that these individuals are doing a great job and that you trust them and will rely on them to help you get up to speed. In other words, you should make sure that people know that their contributions are valued, and that there won’t be any large additional changes coming in terms of personnel.
You should explicitly communicate that you think the team is executing well and has strong vision. The message should be: this is a great team and you’re happy to be part of it. You can use this as an opportunity to highlight why you wanted to join the team, and how that overlaps with the team mission. Pay special attention to projects that are on-going, and be explicit with the individuals on those projects that the work is not at risk. You should explicitly say, “hey, I agree that this project is important”.
You want to make sure that everyone on the team and around the team is on the same page about why this change is happening. If there are different explanations for why a management change is happening, it can cause more uncertainty. It may help to have two or three bullet points written down as concrete talking points for you, your manager, and the previous manager.
You want everyone affected by the management change to find out at the same time, and in person. If you don’t do this, be prepared for rumors to start. You should keep the initial set of people who know about the change to a minimum, before it’s announced. After the team is brought into the loop, you should send a wide communication to the affected parts of the rest of the company.
Your best tool in this transition is having regular one-on-ones with the individual team members. If you’re not the type of manager who has one-on-ones with everyone weekly, this is a good time to over-invest in that. Initial one-on-ones should be about building trust, lending an empathetic ear, and just getting to know each other.
You should also start having frequent one-on-ones with the previous manager. You can use this time to build context on the people on the team, what they are working on, and how they work together. Your goal is to hit the ground running, so that you don’t have to spend the first few weeks in information gathering mode.
Remember that this is a natural time for team members to re-evaluate whether they still want to be on this team. Minimizing change and building trust quickly will help, but it may also make sense to allow mentally for some neutral attrition during this period.