Passing the baton

Conflict can arise in a team when a new team leader is appointed. Team members who have enjoyed a positive relationship with their former leader may view the newcomer with suspicion. Indeed, some team members may foment dissent, especially if they believe their former team leader was hard done-by. But don’t worry–there’s some good news, too. As a new team leader you can build positive relationships with your people, provided you handle the transition skilfully.

Here are some positive steps you can take to make the transition a success:

  • Speak with the outgoing team leader, if possible. In many cases, you won’t have the benefit of a handover period. Even so, it’s useful to catch up with your predecessor, to gain the benefit of his or her experience.
  • Ask the outgoing team leader to describe the strengths and weaknesses of the team. Take what you hear with a grain of salt–after all, it is only one person’s point of view. If he or she veers into gossip, bring the conversation back on track by asking for specific examples of the behaviour in question.
  • If the previous team leader is unwilling to speak with you, his or her departure may have been acrimonious. Ask your manager to provide you with some background detail. Again, focus on the specifics, rather than gossip.
  • Once you join the team, speak with each of your team members individually. The purpose of these conversations is to learn more about your people, and to identify what drives them. It’s not a performance appraisal interview–leave those discussions until you’re better established.
  • Ask open questions. What do they enjoy doing in the team? What are their strengths? (For the moment, focus on the positives, so only discuss their weaknesses if they volunteer them.) Are then any concerns that they’d like to raise? What can you do as team leader to help them meet the team’s goals?
  • Listen to their answers. Paraphrase to check your understanding. If they express any needs, show that you understand, and explore how you can assist in greater detail.
  • Acknowledge their feelings if they feel the previous team leader was badly treated. If they become emotional, just sit with them and let them vent. When it feels appropriate–you will need to gauge this, based on the level of emotion displayed–ask them what they need from you to help the team heal and move forward.
  • Discuss your leadership style with them. Explain your role, and how you would like to interact with them. Keep your comments brief, and give them plenty of opportunities to contribute to the conversation.
  • Once you feel you have reached a shared understanding, summarise the conversation, and thank them for their time.
  • Only make commitments that you know you can keep. If you need to take any issues to your manager, explain how you will handle the situation, and promise to get back to them by a specific date. By keeping these simple commitments, you’ll begin to build trust with your new team.

Obviously, there’s more to leading a team effectively than the simple points raised above. But your initial contact with your team will shape your long term relationship with these people. By listening to them and accepting the validity of their views, you’ll begin your tenure as team leader on the right foot. Let us know how you get on!


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