When onboarding goes bad around an individual moving into a new role or the merging of teams, triage the situation to figure out if the issues are minor, major or not savable. Diagnose the context and issues. Change the balance of consequences. Follow through.

Let’s look at these one level at a time.


Level I/Green – Minor Issues

We all hit bumps on the road. While they shake us up, they don’t stop us. As people onboard into new roles or teams merge, expect bumps along the way. If the bumps are minor with relatively low impact on ultimate success let the onboarding leaders keep going. Monitor the situation because several minor bumps can add up to have a major impact.


Level II/Yellow – Major Issues, Less Urgent

Level II and III are the middle ground with major issues that can be addressed. By definition, these issues are a threat to the ultimate success of the new individual or team. This means timing is critical. Address them early enough and you can turn the situation around. Wait too long and you cannot. Keep your eyes open and intervene early with three steps:

1. Diagnose the context and issues. Begin your search for understanding by looking outside in. Look first at what’s going on around the individual or team onboarding. Then dig into what the onboarding individual or merging team is doing. Your intervention will be different if the issue is outside their control than if it’s something they can fix themselves.

One new leader was struggling to connect with his colleagues. A big issue was the vacancies in the position he reported to and in the position he was supposed to partner with. Trying to “fix” this leader was like trying to put a gas mask on the canary in the coal mine. These other positions needed to be filled for this new leader to have any chance of success.

2. Change the balance of consequences. Treatable onboarding issues almost always involve unhelpful behavior on someone’s part. Prompt the behavior change. Then dial up the positive and dial down the negative consequences of helpful behavior while dialing up the negative and dialing down the positive consequences of unhelpful behavior.

It’s frightening how many organizations discover they’ve actually been rewarding behavior they are theoretically trying to discourage.

3. Follow through. Don’t get fooled into thinking your quick fix will stick. Generally, interventions require maintenance levels of support over extended periods of time. Shorten the leash on the people that were behaving badly by checking in with them and those they impact more frequently at first, easing off slowly over time while keeping your eyes open for other issues.


Level III/Red – Major Issues, More Urgent

The only difference between Level II and Level III issues is timing. Tackle Level III issues first.


Level IV/Black – Not Savable

Forty percent of new leaders fail in their first 18 months. Generally this is the result of poor fit, poor ability to deliver or poor ability to adjust to changes down the road.

Accepting that the situation is beyond repair is one of the hardest moments for leaders. Almost every senior executive looking back on his or her career cites not moving fast enough on people as his or her top regret.

When those executives do finally move on people, others often ask “What took you so long?”

You think you’re being fair by waiting to make the call. You’re not. Make the call so those failing can get to a place where they can succeed and so you and others can turn your attention back to things with a chance of working.