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6 tips for taking over from a bad boss

When taking over a traumatised team, be sure to walk your talk.
6 tips for taking over from a bad boss

Stepping into a leadership role is difficult enough as it is, but when you’ve inherited a team from a bad boss, the task is even more daunting. Similar to being elected mayor of a hurricane-battered city, you’ll likely have a lot of cleanup to do before you can get down to business. 

“Like anyone who's been in an abusive relationship, a traumatised team may be very fearful and reluctant to share or be transparent about what's actually happened,” said Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. “Often, there's shame, but they may also have accustomed themselves to being in an abusive relationship. And when a company has allowed that to happen for a while, they're also angry at and suspicious of the company, because often these bosses are not discovered until very late in the game.”

If you’ve stepped into a bad boss’s shoes, it’s wise to take a moment and consider the best way to approach the situation. Here are some tips from experts on how to turn the team around and get back to business as soon as possible:

Survey the damage. The first step in cleaning up any type of mess is to survey the damage. To figure out what you’re dealing with, you’ll want to sit down with each member of the team and hear what they have to say.

“I would recommend sitting down with every individual, no matter how big your team is, because everyone will have had a different experience,” said Julie Hyde, a leadership coach based in Melbourne, Australia, and author of Busy? Take Control, Get Relevant & Become an Influential Leader. “Sit down and have a conversation with them and just listen to their experiences, what they want to see changed, and if they have any ideas on how to change it.”

Cohen advised making it clear to the team that all conversations will be confidential and, to demonstrate your commitment to meaningful and proactive change, involve the HR department in the process.

“You want this process to be documented so that in hindsight, you don't become part of the problem,” he explained. “You need to make sure that you have the HR department’s undivided support so they're able to endorse whatever it is you plan to do, and both you and they can become part of the solution.”

Set a new vision with the team. The boss you’re replacing likely didn’t give the team much say in the office culture, so you can signal a positive change by giving the team a voice in the group’s vision going forward.

“I would recommend involving the team in setting the vision for the business and how they want the culture of the business to be,” Hyde said.

Involve everyone in establishing the expected behaviours they want to see in this workplace and the behaviours they will not tolerate, and make sure everyone is very clear on the new norms, she added.  

“Let the employees see this as an opportunity to step up and contribute to the firm’s success,” said Annelise Pesa, executive coach with SEVEN, a career coaching company based in London.

Be transparent about your bandwidth. It may be tempting to get on the team’s good side by making lofty promises of what they can expect under your leadership, but Cohen warned against making promises you can’t keep.

“What are you prepared to do and what do you have the bandwidth to actually change?” he asked. “Because the worst possible thing we can do is come in and tell everyone we're going to solve the problem and then discover that we don't really have the authority to do that.”

Hyde recommended making it clear to the team from the start that, while some of their ideas for change will be taken on board, some might not be, but regardless, it's going to be a collective effort.

Open the door. Once you’ve advertised your leadership as one of open communication, you should prove your commitment by allowing your team as much access to you as possible, according to Cohen.

“If you're introducing this notion that people can be heard and that they should share their concerns and/or issues, you need to make them believe sincerely that you want to listen to them,” he said.

He recommended keeping your office door open while you work through the fallout from the previous boss then gradually weaning everyone away from a wide-open door as the office stabilises.

Make a small show of change. After what they’ve been through with the previous boss, your team may view you as just more of the same. To dispel their concerns, Cohen recommended making a small, immediate change to show you're serious about your commitment and that you recognise there was a problem.

“That small change could be switching up assignments so that the balance of labour is not so heavily weighted toward one individual, or it could be that you are giving them a half-day on Fridays in the summer — something to make them feel good about themselves.”

Pesa agreed, adding that offering the team additional small benefits, such as agile working, implies trust and is very empowering after a previous boss has taken the power away.

Build up morale with a team event. It’s also likely that team morale is at rock bottom upon your arrival, so it doesn’t hurt to plan a team event that everyone will enjoy.

“Plan an event that won't be a burden for folks,” Cohen said. “Sometimes, when we've been through this toxic situation, all of the sudden, management comes along and says, ‘We're going to have an off-site,’ and people are thinking, ‘Not another off-site. How can we trust these people?’”

Cohen recommended avoiding any sort of elaborate off-site event and instead planning a simple team dinner or lunch, where team members can bond outside of work.

“You want to get that discussion happening so people can re-establish positive and resourceful relationships with one another.”

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.