How you tell the new boss what needs to change

B14 – Report on Business Weekend
Saturday, September 23, 2006

You probably have lots of great ideas, but how you present them is crucial, VIRGINIA GALT writes

The workplace is dysfunctional, morale is in the tank — and in comes a new executive with the clout to fix things.

His or her arrival could herald new hope . . . or destine the organization to more of the same.

The quandary is when and how to approach the new boss: Should you raise concerns at the first meet-and-greet? Or hold off a few weeks (knowing full well that others will be in there like a dirty, old shirt, seizing the first opportunity to advance their own agendas)?

There are dangers in saying too much, but saying too little can also be career-limiting, depending on the style and personality of the new boss. Take the measure of the man, or woman, before proceeding, cautions Mark Palmer, president of Toronto-based Palmer & Company Executive Recruitment Inc.

If the new executive is genuinely receptive to new ideas and constructive criticism — and has come in as a “change agent” — by all means speak up, Mr. Palmer says.

“If you respond [to this person] with bland or polite nothings, it is entirely possible that you will be perceived as being part of the old guard and, therefore, potentially expendable.”

If, on the other hand, the new boss has been brought in to maintain the status quo, criticisms about what’s wrong with the organization and suggestions about how to change it will be neither appreciated nor welcomed, he says.

Then there are the newcomers who pay lip service to caring about the recommendations of their lower-level managers and employees — but who really don’t care to hear them, Mr. Palmer says.

“For the employee who wishes to provide constructive feedback . . . it would be appropriate to ask around about this [new] person before taking the proverbial plunge.”

Toronto-based career consultant Nina Spencer agrees that employees should trust their intuition. If the new boss seems sincere about wanting to hear from employees about problems, and potential solutions to those problems, take him or her up on it, Ms. Spencer advises.

Management consultant Edmond Mellina, president of Toronto-based Transitus Inc., says a good leader will talk to as many people as possible, at all levels of the organization. Even so, it is sometimes difficult for a new boss to differentiate immediately between the smooth operators who are adept at playing politics and their more-reticent colleagues who might also have valuable information and ideas.

“For a new leader, it’s very tricky, because you tend to hear more at the beginning from the people who have an agenda . . . or want to settle old scores,” he says.

So, where does that leave those who have legitimate concerns about the health of the organization? How do they raise the issues without coming across as manipulative? When is the best time to make an approach?

Don’t pounce at the boss’s first walk through the office, Ms. Spencer says. Give him or her some time to get acquainted with the place. Ideally, the new boss will ask employees for ideas and suggestions.

“The best feedback is always solicited rather than imposed. I think we all know intuitively that when we tell someone we want to give them feedback, they may not be interested in hearing it.”

When there are long-smouldering issues that might not be immediately apparent to someone coming into a department or a company from the outside, employees should carefully consider when — or whether — to bring them up.

Most often, these issues involve people, Mr. Mellina says, and complaining about managers or co-workers is always risky business.

“If you’ve had a bad leader or a bad boss . . . often, you are very emotional, so it’s very important to try to be as cool as possible as you express your views to the new leader. Be as fair as possible.”

Ms. Spencer advises employees to decide what they can live with, and what they can no longer tolerate, before accosting the new boss.

If it is an issue that is profoundly affecting your ability to do a good job, “then you need to speak up,” she says.

But, first, talk to trusted colleagues to see if they have similar concerns. “There’s strength in numbers” when enough people feel strongly enough about an issue to present a case for change, she says.

“The only trouble is, sometimes just at the very moment you need them, they back off and you are left out there on a limb . . .. If they let you down, you may have to go out on the skinny branches on your own,” Ms. Spencer says.

Mr. Mellina says that when a new leader is presented with problems, he or she also wants to be presented with possible solutions.

“It can get very frustrating from the leader’s standpoint if you have a bunch of people telling you things, but no one is providing ideas.”

Rules of engagement

For employees

  • Get a handle on the new boss’s management style before bending his or her ear about problems. A “change agent” boss will welcome the discussion, but a “status quo” boss might not want to hear about it.
  • Don’t pounce on the first day. Give the boss time to settle in, and give yourself time to observe his or her behaviour. If the boss hasn’t already asked for a chat, the three-week mark is a good time to ask for a few minutes of time.
  • If there are long-standing problems, see if colleagues will join you in raising the issues. There’s safety in numbers.
  • Complaining about a co-worker or manager is risky. If you decide to proceed, keep emotions in check and strive to be fair.
  • If you barrage the new boss with a list of problems, be prepared to propose solutions.

For the new boss

  • Brief yourself, in advance, on what you are getting into.
  • Try to have a sixth sense as you walk around the office for the first time, Nina Spencer advises. “Is there any joy in this office . . . Are the employees interested in engaging you in conversation?”
  • Meet as many of your employees as possible, at all organizational levels. Set up meetings and ask open questions, such as “what do you think is relevant for me to know?”
  • Be aware that those employees with hidden agendas or old scores to settle are often the first through your door. Wait until you get a more representative sample of viewpoints before acting.
  • If there are long-standing grievances, hear them out. Before ending the meeting, ask if there’s anything else. “You might as well get it all,” Ms. Spencer says.
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