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5 ways to shake up your new team's culture

Caveman Chuck Coker

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I just read your article, 5 Reasons employees aren't sharing their ideas, and I've recently joined an organization as a manager where your list of reasons were the norm under my predecessor. I'm getting a lot of the 'That's not how we've always done it' response, and nil creativity. The open and inclusive, asking for ideas style is drawing blank looks, confusion and well, fear I think.

Bear in mind, these people have worked for ten years in this repressive culture and are having a hard time letting it go. How can I demonstrate I want their ideas and will consider them thoughtfully, if they won't try it out?

Excellent question. As much as people say they want change, they don't know how to handle it when it happens and revert to the safety of how things were before. Because you're new you are an unknown quantity they are going to be extra cautious and that means keeping things as they were before. 

You can get over this and change the attitude and culture of your department, but it's not an easy task. Here are 5 things that can help you get over this hump.

1. Don't criticize the old boss. It's super easy to walk in and see things in a disaster area and blame it on the previous boss. Even if all the employees hated the old boss, your criticisms will come off as rude, and they will feel compelled to defend the old boss. It's like same thing -- I can insult my home town/spouse/school but you sure has heck better not.

2. Ask "Name one thing that should we stop doing immediately to make us more effective?" People don't want more work -- and "give me your ideas!" always seems to result in someone having to do more work. This question will get people talking and the ideas flying. You'll also find out a lot about what goes on in your new department.

3. Listen. Duh. Of course you're planning to listen. But I mean actually listen. If you're in a staff meeting and someone actually is brave enough to flout cultural norms and give an idea, listen to it. Take notes on it. Ask non-threatening follow-up questions. (Ones that don't require the person to do extra work or implies in any way that the idea is stupid.) Thank the person profusely. Then actually look into the suggestion.

4. Respond to all ideas. It doesn't matter how stupid they are at first -- your employees may be subconsciously testing your resolve anyway -- respond in a positive manner. Thank people for sharing. Implement where possible. You may actually have a better idea, but if you want to train your employees to speak up, you may have to accept less than perfect in order to encourage more ideas.

5. Hold regular 1:1 and staff meetings. When you are getting to know a new staff, you need to carve out time to talk with them. They won't trust you if they don't know you and this is the fastest way to get to know you and for you to know them. These meetings will give opportunities to share ideas. Keep them short and sweet, though. Nobody wants to spend their life in a meeting.

You should expect to see changes gradually occur as you go through these steps.

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