Q. I was hired as manager of a customer service department. I’ve been there exactly three weeks and already my boss has had complaints from my subordinates. Variously, these include: I’m abrupt, rude, don’t listen and I give orders. I’m too young to be in charge. My boss told me to ignore it all. I’m concerned because I was hired to change things. Why are these people hazing me?
A. You reformers are all alike. In a bad job market you arrive with a change agenda for people who want the same old, same old and you expect to be loved. What are you thinking? You are right to be concerned about their opinions even if your boss supports you. You’ve got to please your direct reports because, properly motivated, they can make your life hell and even sandbag your performance. They will do this by raising questions about your competence in the grapevine. They can yes you to death and not change a thing. These people have staying power or why would they hire you?
Stop talking about change. It scares them senseless and puts them in a fighting mode. Instead, talk about fine tuning. Ask how they’d solve the problems your boss wants solved. It’s o.k. to say that you have no idea how things work here (you don’t and won’t for a few more months) and would appreciate suggestions. In other words, co-opt them into the process.
Fire your poorest performer. You’ll have to warn orally, write warnings, talk to HR, but it’s the only way to convince the group you mean business. If they think you’re not going to take any serious action they’ll never change a thing. Their singular strength is staying power. Use a carrot and stick approach because it works. Do not look for a ring leader or the person who complains the loudest. At least the latter is engaged. Stay close to your boss. The grapevine will go wild for a few weeks but it will move on once you’re in control. Even more than change people fear a leader who can’t lead.
Confide in nobody. The worst scenario is that you boss hears from his sources that you’re complaining about the help. You’re supposed to clean things up. If you complain it means you have doubts in your skills which is bad.
You can face this problem at any stage in your career. Don’t you know there is a special skill set for reformers, turnaround artists and change agents? If that’s your role, you’ll need the ability to coax and reform at the same time. As long as you understand you’re not going to be popular you can do this.