Supporting Your Team in the Midst of Change
16 June, 2021
We were working on a product that was bringing significant revenue to the company and getting great customer feedback. Suddenly, the business decided to lower active investment in the product and have people focus on other areas where help is more urgently needed. Their decision was to direct our efforts into an area of higher impact where our work could be critical. Without much discussion, we were assigned to work on something completely new for everyone.
This change was not well received by most engineers. Changing the direction had a profound impact on the team’s morale. As a manager, I have found myself fazed by a challenge: How to help the team adjust to the new circumstances and ramp up quickly. Getting them excited about the new challenge was a challenge itself.
First and foremost, I tried to be honest and openly explain why we were not working on the old area anymore. It had nothing to do with us underperforming or such, but that the business focus had shifted, and we were needed elsewhere. I did my best to understand how we could make the transition more smooth. The business often doesn’t think through details of moving dozens of engineers onto another project if that is something beneficial to the company long-term. But as a manager, I had to ensure that my engineers would gain new skills, become familiar with a new domain and product, and continue to contribute to the company with the same success as before.
I had many one-on-ones because different people could have different perspectives, and I wanted to understand them all. I listened to them intently and tried to grasp where they were coming from. I would be there to answer all their questions, and if I didn’t have an answer, I would make sure to get those and be convinced myself before I would pass them to the team. It was a process of me being in the middle of the communication funnel, having to disseminate much of the information coming from management that was directed at my team.
Though it may seem like smooth sailing, the truth is that the change was met with some resistance. But by being honest, I managed to calm the situation. I could understand (and even appreciate) their connectedness to the old product, but at the end of the day, we were working for the company that made its priorities, and we would serve the company’s interests best if we would work on what was of the highest impact at that moment. Our loyalty should be to the company and not a specific product.
I followed a simple principle of management throughout the process: whenever there is a conflict, the best way forward is to do what is the best for the company and not for an individual team or any person on any team. I coupled that with meticulously nurturing the trust between me as a manager and the team. I knew that if they didn’t trust me on a personal level, all the things I was saying would make no difference. I would also be very attentive and empathize with the team. That means acknowledging the validity of their perspective but also acknowledging that different people have different perspectives.
Finally, it should be mentioned that not all of my efforts were successful. Some people couldn’t be convinced that working on the new product made sense, and I couldn’t make them excited about it. I think that is okay. I am not looking for a unison of opinions, and I appreciate that they felt safe and supported to uphold their different opinions.
- Be open and transparent with people. It always pays off, even if you are bringing bad news.
- Regardless of what the team prefers or believes is the most important thing to be working on, always think about what is the best for the company as a whole. No team, product, or individual business lines should come before the company’s interest ever.
- Trust is a cornerstone of any team’s success, a binding force that brings people together. It is almost always bi-directional (with both directions being of equal importance): as much as you trust the team, the team trusts you back. It takes time, and while there is no recipe to follow, you should try not to do anything that could break that trust. Showing your vulnerability is critical to building trust. Feel free to share your thoughts on what you didn’t like or what didn’t make sense to you. Most people will appreciate honesty and being personal.
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