Easing the Pain of an Abrupt Transition, from Afar

“Congratulations! You have a unique set of skills that makes you a perfect fit for another project. So we’re ‘rewarding’ you by moving you over to another manager. This is a fabulous career move, with plenty of opportunities for growth. Of course I’m sad to see you go, but I know you’ll do great.”

Such an abrupt transition can be jarring under any circumstances, but when the employee, current manager and new manager all work remotely, letting go of one team and latching on to a new one can be especially unsettling. No matter how compelling the business reason (e.g., “This project is the key to our future growth!”), when an employee is moved to a new manager, the transition can be painful for everyone.

For the manager who’s losing the employee to another team, the absence of a valued team member can leave a void, especially if they had forged a strong bond. For the new manager, creating a trusting relationship with a remote employee who may feel pushed into joining their team will be especially difficult. The employee may feel a sense of disempowerment and betrayal if they feel they have had no say in the move to a team where people may have no real knowledge or appreciation of who they are.

What can the current manager do to help ease the transition, beyond the usual pep talk about what a “great” move this is? How can the new manager earn the trust and respect from the incoming employee? And how can the employee self-advocate with the new manager to build a mutually-trusting relationship from the start? All three need to engage in a series of candid conversations to establish a transition plan that feels right from all perspectives.

Joining me to co-author this month’s Communique is my friend and colleague, Beverly Winkler, a senior Human Resources Organization and Learning Development Leader.   Here are a few practical tips each member of this “leadership triangle” can take to ensure a smooth transition.  Download a more complete checklist (PDF document) here.


Current Manager:
  • Define the communication “whys” jointly with the new manager. Be prepared to explain candidly why this impending move is necessary, why (or if) it represents an opportunity, why the employee’s skills and experience are needed, how this change can represent a significant leap in their growth development plan, and why the change has to take place now.
  • Determine how and when to best communicate the change with your employee. This might be best done by your meeting alone with your employee first. (Of course, face-to-face would be the first choice; a video call may have to suffice.) In some cases, meeting with your employee and the new manager at the same time might be better. Remember: This should be a series of conversations, not a once-and-done meeting.
  • Acknowledge the surprise and pain your employee (and you) may be experiencing. Let the employee know that you realize this move may come as a shock, and that the change may not feel welcome, especially if you two have had a close relationship. Acknowledge your own sense of loss in whatever way you feel is appropriate. It can be a tricky balance:  By keeping a stiff upper lip, you may be inadvertently telling your employee that losing them doesn’t really matter much. On the other hand, by expressing too much regret, you may be deepening your employee’s sense of loss.
  • Agree on how (and how often) you and your departing employee will communicate in the future.While it’s tempting to offer that they can reach out at any time, this may be both unrealistic and undesirable. Unrealistic, because you may simply not have the time to drop everything for someone no longer on your team, especially if the employee is frequently seeking guidance or a chance to vent. Undesirable, because you may be encouraging a sense of continued mutual dependency at the expense of building a trusting relationship with the new manager.
New Manager/Team Leader:
  • Partner with the former manager and your new employee on a reasonable transition plan. Even if you need this new employee on board “yesterday,” you will all need time to make a smooth transition. Find out how much time will be needed to move your employee’s current initiatives to others. Beware of plans that call for the new employee to be “available as needed” to their former team; clean breaks usually work best, even if it means postponing the start date by a week or two. However, there may need to be a brief period to have accountabilities in both groups, but this should be the exception rather than the rule.
  • Identify your first touch points with the employee.  Introduce the employee to the team and their resources.  Share the team’s strategic goals, deliverables, operating principles, defining culture, and give them a who’s who of key business partners and other important stakeholders. Review important milestones, key dependencies and critical success factors. Map out team communication channels, and how each one is typically used. Note: This initial overview does not replace the need for a more thorough onboarding plan (See below).
  • Develop a 90-day transition plan for assimilating your employee into the team. This is especially crucial for remote team members who may have few connections to the new team or other key stakeholders.  Create a list of people, by name and role, for the new employee to meet in their first week, month, or first few months. (Even better: Send emails to introduce your new team member to make it easier for them to schedule time to meet.) Indicate which meetings are mandatory and why. Run interference as needed, helping your new employee to remove obstacles along the way and gain entry to the right people.
  • Check in frequently to see how the employee is managing the transition.  Be empathetic. Ask what is and is not working. Find out how the wrap-up of old projects is going, and whether they’re meeting the right people. Are there questions they need answers to? Since you and your employee can’t easily meet in person, your weekly 1:1 meetings will be the best way to build a mutually trusting relationship. Come prepared with insightful questions and observations to stimulate meaningful conversation. (E.g. “What was your biggest ‘aha!’ this week and how did it make a difference in your work?” Or, “In our team meeting, you mentioned some valuable lessons learned from project X. Tell me more.”) Encourage your new employee to come with questions, too. An essential part of every conversation: Ask what your employee needs from you to be successful. Make these weekly meetings sacrosanct.
  • Learn about each other’s communications preferences, styles and expectations.  For example, if you typically prefer emails for certain things, calls for another, and Slack for something else, say so. Ask about your employee’s preferences, too. Discuss expectations about response times, especially during crunch periods. If your organization uses DISC or MBTI or something similar, share your profiles (and that of your team members) and discuss the implications.
  • Beware of making promises you can’t deliver on.  A real test of your credibility as a leader will be the extent to which you follow through on commitments you make. Far better to be realistic about what you can do for your employee vs. blithely making promises that may sound good in the moment but which you can’t possibly fulfill. For example, don’t promise a promotion or salary increase within a certain period of time if you have little control over raises.
Transitioning Employee:
  • Draft your own transition plan.  Your former and new manager will be doing this as well, but don’t wait for them to think of everything.  Demonstrate your initiative.  Consider what you are now working on that needs to be transitioned while identifying what you need to learn about your new role.  Review this list with both your former and new manager.  Chances are, everyone may need to make at least a few compromises along the way.
  • Set up time with your new manager.  Prepare questions to ask about their background, their current initiatives and how they see you as a key member of the team.  Be prepared to share your background, your successes and your career aspirations.  Share your ideas for the transition plan and ask how you can work together to prioritize your work.  Ask about their communication style and their preferences.  How often will you meet?  How accessible do you expect each other to be? Are there team norms for how the team is to work together?  What else should be added to the transition plan?
  • Seek out your new team members.  This new experience provides a golden opportunity to expand your network.  Take charge and set up meetings; don’t wait for them to contact you.  Ask your new colleagues about their experiences and how they see your involvement on the team. Probe to find out how the team works together when things are going well ,and how they work in crisis mode.   Ask your new colleagues to suggest others to meet.  Be curious, listen generously and withhold judgement, at least at first.  Share your ideas only after hearing their ideas, and resist the temptation to let them know about “better ways” to do things until after you’ve built a relationship.

We all adapt to change at a different pace. The advice to “sleep on it” makes a lot of sense here. When someone moves from one team to another, all members of the “leadership triangle”  must work together to pave the way for a successful transition. It takes time to fully understand and absorb the implications of the change on the employee, former manager and team, as well as the new manager and fellow teammates. Proactive, candid communication is the key, especially in a virtual world, when it’s never safe to assume that people understand things the same way.  Such a transition can be a positive career-defining moment for the employees and managers alike, if they take the time to prepare for it thoughtfully.


Managing Abrupt Transitions from Afar – checklist (downloadable PDF file)

Managing Transitions, the seminal book by William Bridges

Team Charter Checklist – downloadable PDF file from Guided Insights and West5 Consulting

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