Q: I joined a team where the work is surprisingly sloppy and there is little sense of the right processes to follow to get things done. While I'm fairly senior, I'm not in charge … what can I do to help make things better?
A: Be careful not to alienate your co-workers — or your boss — before you even have a chance to help.
The inner game
Think about your role and responsibilities, being sure you're clear about exactly what you control. That's where you will be able to start.
Then take a step back and try to understand the situation more broadly. When you joined the team, what did you know about the situation? Your current perspective will be different if you were hired to help get things in order vs. if you were led to believe that all is running smoothly.
What's the view of the rest of the team? If people realize that performance is not optimal, they may be relieved to have some solutions brought forward. However, they may be defensive about the current state of affairs, or may be dismissive of your concerns or solutions.
Finally, where do you stand with your boss? If he or she is in denial, you'll have limited support unless you can enlist your co-workers to help move things forward. However, if team performance has been an issue with those above your boss, solutions that you bring could help improve your boss' reputation, too.
The bottom line is, in order to make a difference, you'll need allies. So before you decide what the problems are, who is responsible for them, etc., start building relationships with your teammates. Form your own opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of the team, and use them to think through root causes of any problems that may exist.
Ask lots of questions, getting people to clarify the work your team does and exploring the reasons for the way the work is completed. Stay neutral — be a learner so that people will open up to you. Notice what works well and what does not, and in your own work, start exhibiting some best practices.
Document the effects in terms of efficiency and reduction of errors, and share those results informally with the team, and formally with your boss. Be sure to give as much credit to others as you can so that they will be brought in under the "change umbrella." This will help build buy-in among the team and build energy for broader adoption of more solid processes.
As the benefits of some limited changes are noted, see if you can find organizational support for process improvement work. Some training in this area and participation on work teams would be a good résumé builder for less experienced employees. It would also take the onus off you as the sole driver of change.
Of course, if there is no support for change above or below, you'll need to come to your own conclusions on whether you're in the right role. But that's a topic for a different column.
The last word
Bring new ideas in gently to help bring about lasting change on your team.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, a credentialed coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.