Building Trust or Doing a Reorg
27 February, 2021
As a senior engineering leader, I was assigned a team that was deeply demoralized and barely functional. People were leaving the team, and everything was falling apart. I felt that the circumstances were so dire that no repair would do any good. The only reasonable way out was to start everything from scratch by reorganizing the team. Or perhaps, I should take a more taxing approach and try to build trust with the team.
I was hesitant to take any action at first because the big release was just around the corner, and I was new and could see how the team was distrustful toward me as a new person who joined their clique. Many managers would take a shortcut there, firing a number of people and turning things upside down. But this was not what I did.
I wanted to get to know the team better, learn about their pain points and challenges. I wanted to better understand what was causing them to be so unmotivated that leaving the team was their only option. To encourage them to speak up, I had to create a psychologically safe environment. I started creating it by talking openly about my own failures, times of despair, and times when I couldn’t find an ounce of motivation to get through a day.
People started to open up and share their concerns. The team had multiple managers who all failed to help the team what they needed the most. They thought they weren’t represented well to external stakeholders and that there was no clarity on the direction the team should take.
I decided to address their concerns most diligently. I reshuffled the team cross-functionally, did some redefining of responsibilities, and opened up communication channels; the immediate effects were soon visible. To be able to delve into such a large undertaking, I had to gain trust with the team. Establishing psychological safety helped, but my efforts to deal with their main problems were also helpful. Once I gained their trust, nothing would stand in my way.
- As a manager, you will have to make the first move. You will have a myriad of choices in front of you, and making the right one is crucial. Perhaps, in different circumstances, I would have made a different choice and restructured the team. Think it through, and make the right choice.
- Before introducing any change, gain the trust of the team that would be affected. Share with them your own pain points or failures, or anything that will help them better connect with you. It is important to explain that their state or situation is not uncommon for many teams or many companies and that many also successfully overcame the same challenges.
- Empathy is crucial. To gain trust, you need to connect with people and be able to yourself in their shoes. For some people, it comes naturally; others need to practice.
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