The challenge of taking over from an incompetent team leader

We talk about getting the right mix of individuals in a team and what it takes for a team to be successful but what if the team leader is inept? Roger Schwarz is an organisational psychologist. In his latest blog for HBR he talks about how a new leader can deal with the debris left behind and how to turn the team around. Here are his top tips:

Tell team members what you know. Your new direct reports want to know what you understand about the leadership deficit they have faced and how it has affected the team. Your purpose isn’t to criticise the previous leader or to be omniscient; it’s to show the team that you have some understanding and appreciation – however limited – of the challenges they have faced and the effects it has had on the organisation, the team and them. By telling people what you know, you also model transparency, a value that may have been lacking in the previous leader.

Be curious about what the team has experienced. If you know only a little about what the team has been through, say so. But even if you have worked with the team or been a team member, get curious and ask about the challenges they have faced and what concerns they have. Incompetent leaders leave behind disarray, conflict, and stress. By understanding what they have experienced, you develop a more complete picture of the issues that you and your team will need to address to move forward. Your curiosity also shows that you are interested in their well-being, another value that may have been lacking in the previous leader.

Be careful about assessing team members’ knowledge and skills based on their initial performance. Similarly, if team members aren’t performing their jobs adequately, it’s easy to infer incorrectly that members can’t perform their jobs. But, sometimes it’s more complex than that. Team members’ knowledge and skills may be masked by the dysfunctional structures, processes, and expectations that the previous leader created and within which team members operate. Until you start to change these conditions, it can be difficult to tell if team members have what it takes to do the job.

Explain your behaviour; don’t make team members guess. As you assess the current team’s functioning and work with the team to make changes, don’t assume that you can allay members’ concerns simply by acting effectively. Team members’ anxieties about the previous leader can easily lead them to misinterpret your comments and behaviors. To reduce this possibility, consistently explain why you are doing what you’re doing and why you are saying what you’re saying. This also enables you to share your leadership philosophy and set expectations for how you want others to lead.

You may be thinking that you don’t have the time to follow these steps; you need to get some team results fast. There is a paradox here. If you start by quickly changing team structures, overall it will take more time to get better team results than if you spend more time to understand, appreciate, and respond to team members’ needs and concerns before making changes. Smart leaders practice what systems thinkers long ago learned: Go slow to go fast.