What's your new boss like?

2009

With the number of people being laid off at the moment, there's a good chance that you may have a new boss. At the very least you're likely to know someone who has a new boss, or perhaps you have just taken on a new management role yourself.

What influences the relationship between the new boss and the group? Do these influences impact the performance of individuals or the entire group?

A new study in the Leadership Quarterly (Ballinger, Schoorman and Lehman, April 2009), throws some light on the issue. The authors found that when a new leader takes over, several things can happen.

Groups where key performers had high quality relationships with the departing leader suffer a drop in performance. This is because key performers, who impact the performance of the whole group, apparently have trouble forming a relationship with the new leader. This is even more so when the succession comes as a surprise to the group.

Crucially, employee's expectation of the relationship they are going to have with their new boss are predictive of the subsequent strength of that relationship. Yet group members may not evaluate new group leaders fairly based solely on characteristics of the new group leader.

They also found that new relationships are driven both by the behaviour of the new leader and the willingness of the group member to engage in the relationship. But leaders who can achieve early success can overcome the potential damage of emotionally charged succession processes.

These results may not come as a surprise. However they provide some important messages for new managers and their people.

First, it is clear that relationships with a new boss do not start with a blank slate. As this study indicates, they are very much influenced by the quality of the relationship with the previous boss and employee expectations of the relationship they are likely to have with the new boss.

So as a new boss, what can one do to manage these challenges?

One suggestion is that incoming group leaders should move to "establish a perception of their ability with each individual group member." This "perception of the new leader's ability" appears to drive evaluations of trust in the new leader that occur after the first meeting. So, this first meeting is critical, particularly if the people have had a good relationship with their previous boss and/or they already have some preconceived ideas (perhaps negative) about the new boss' potential.

The most obvious strategy for the new boss would be to make a personal connection with each individual as soon as possible to establish credibility. This can be easily achieved if you are taking over a small team. But what if you are a new CEO - or President of a country?

For a new CEO, making personal connections can be time consuming but ultimately worthwhile. I once worked in a retail bank where the new CEO visited all 95 branches within the first six months. Not only did this set an example of his willingness to meet the people, but as the visits progressed stories about his approachability circulated on the informal grapevine, quickly magnifying his positive image.

Now, if you happen to be the new President of a country, how do you make these individual connections with millions of people and prove your credibility?

If you've been following the new boss, President Obama's first 100 days, you may have noticed that he is using every form of communication to connect with the people – he's even appeared on late night TV. Studying Obama closely, there are (at least) two other things that he does:

First, he personalizes the message in every speech he makes by using people's names and stories about real people – who will forget the 106 year old lady, Ann Nixon Cooper about whom Obama spoke in his victory speech?

Second, whenever Obama enters a room, whether it be to give a speech to a few hundred people or to meet foreign dignitaries, he always shakes hands with those people closest to his entrance. So even though he may be walking to the podium to deliver a speech, he will personally connect with at least half a dozen people. This seems to have a very positive impact on the entire room.

In addition to what the leader can do to build the new relationship, there's also a place for the organisation to contribute. Organisations should train new leaders by briefing them on the relationship that existed in the group prior to the departure of the previous leader.

As the Leadership Quarterly report pointed out, "A critical part of succession planning and training in organisations should be devoted to teaching new group leaders skills in forming new trust relationships with group members who may still feel attached to the prior group leader."

They should also spend time communicating the new leader's ability and experience to his/her new group members prior to the appointment.

So if you are about to become a new boss, here are some suggestions to consider.

  • Send a message to the group before your arrival saying how much you are looking forward to working with them.
  • Make sure you make a personal and individual connection, and demonstrate your competence with the key performers in the group – these people affect the performance of the entire group. Remember also, if they have had a good relationship with their previous boss, despite them being the better performers, there performance is likely to initially drop off.
  • Spend time engaging all group members by finding out ASAP what are their issues and challenges. More questioning and listening rather than talking (particularly in the early days) is probably a good rule of thumb. Engaging them in their key issues will almost certainly have them engaging in the new relationship with you.
  • Do some research. Find out how well liked the previous boss was. If he/she was really well liked, then you will need to work just as hard in the early days and weeks on building relationships as you do on getting the job done.
  • Get your new boss, HR, or even the old boss, to promote your arrival – particularly demonstrating your previous experience and performance.

Remember too, that where the group have had a particularly good relationship with their previous boss, it is most important to recognize things they are doing well.

Finally, think back to a time when you had a new boss. What worked and what didn't for you in that early relationship? You'll probably remember some very good things you can do and avoid as you develop your own "new boss introduction plan".

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden is MD of the Australian National Learning Institute and author of What To Do When You Become The Boss. He has been a boss many times over. He's also worked for many. Some of these relationships have been fantastic and some did not work as well as they might have.