Share First, Listen Second: A Guide for Incoming Leaders

April 16, 2024
Mike Stallard

By Michael Lee Stallard and Katharine P. Stallard

The announcement comes down from above: the current boss is leaving and a new boss from outside the team has been chosen. What if this change takes the team by surprise and little more is shared about the situation? Now, if the current leader has been ineffective or difficult to work under, then this news may come as a relief to the people on the team. Regardless, cue the side conversations and speculation and the range of emotions that come with it, chief among them nervousness. What will this new boss be like? Is the person a command-and-control type who will dictate all sorts of changes? Is anyone’s job safe? Will they be connection-minded, welcoming input and establishing a sense of belonging and collaboration?

The dynamics are about to change, but people don’t know yet whether it will be for the better or worse. Their prevailing attitude toward change will factor into how well they navigate the coming time of transition. In general, some people embrace change, excited about new possibilities or a fresh start. Others resist it, preferring the known, even if it’s not ideal. They may dread the unknown and gravitate toward imagining a poor outcome.

What if you are that new boss in our opening scenario? As you step into your new role, it would be worthwhile for you to reflect on what you have experienced during leadership changes as well as be mindful of the very natural apprehension team members may be feeling. Managers have the power to hire and fire, determine pay and promotions, and give assignments. Because of that power, the people they are responsible for leading may naturally fear them, especially when a manager or higher-level leader is new to a team or group.

There are situations in life when having a sense of fear and acting accordingly is a good and helpful thing. But this is not one of them. Fear sabotages the ability to reason because it engages the part of the brain called the amygdala where the brain processes threats, which then disengages the prefrontal cortex (PFC) where rational thought and language are processed. Feelings of anxiety are present when the amygdala is in charge. Research has found that connecting with a person and getting them to talk engages their PFC so they are able to make more rational decisions and quiets activity in the amygdala so they feel better. Not connecting with the people they lead is a sure way for a leader to sabotage a team or group’s performance.

Knowing what we do about the superpower of human connection, we strongly recommend that you make it a priority to connect with the people you are now responsible for leading. (This also applies if you have been promoted within the team and you will now be leading your colleagues.) Your approach and timing will matter. Here are two real-life examples.

Sharing, Starting with You

One leader we know likes to take a proactive approach when joining a new team. She invites the team to an introductory meeting, to be held shortly after the announced leadership change has been made. She begins the time together by sharing a brief presentation that provides both personal and professional background. Topics include a little bit about her family, her interests, her philosophy of what makes a great team, and things that she prioritizes when making decisions about the team’s strategy. She then gives the team time to ask her questions. This “getting to know me” first step is followed up by “getting to know you” one-on-one meetings with each member of the team. The “listening tour” takes place within the first few weeks.

The result? Reduced anxiety amongst team members as they meet and begin working with their new boss, plus a faster ramp-up time for the leader.

Not Sharing Leaves You Vulnerable to Misperception

When leaders don’t take the time to thoroughly introduce themselves early on, team members may jump to conclusions and feel anxious. Leaders at high levels need to be particularly mindful of reaching out to not only their direct reports, but also to those further down their chain of command to introduce themselves and begin establishing rapport.

The leader who chooses to remain a bit of a mystery should recognize that it leaves them open to being misread and misunderstood. If an employee’s first time interacting with “the big boss” is in a working session, the employee may falsely interpret a business-like, matter-of-fact approach as an indication that the leader is indifferent to them or dissatisfied with their work. Many times, the leader is simply focused on accomplishing the task and has forgotten to consider the emotions employees may be experiencing as they meet the person with power over their career advancement and livelihood.

The employee who is still trying to figure you out may hold information back, not knowing if you are a “kill the messenger” type. Or they may present a rosier picture than reality to make a favorable first impression.

Make Personally Connecting a Priority

Be the leader who makes it a priority to connect with the new people you are responsible for leading. Don’t leave them in the dark. Yes, tasks and meeting goals are important and you’ve been hired to make things happen. You may be concerned about getting off to a fast start and showing leaders above you that they made the right choice. But, don’t neglect the relational side of work. Toxic and even lukewarm relationships will impede progress. This is especially true if your mandate going in is to address problems.

Lead by example. Share your professional background and values when it comes to the team and leadership. Share about your personal life, to the extent you are comfortable. For example, you might tell the team about where you were born and grew up, and what your interests are outside of work. On your listening tour, ask people to share a bit about their background. Look for attitudes or experiences that you have in common. Ask them what they enjoy about the job and the organization. Ask them what work environment helps them do their best work. Communicate that you are open to input and will want to know what’s right, what’s wrong, and what’s missing from your thinking as you all go forward together as a team.

Gaining “personal knowledge” has been shown to humanize people and increase trust, and also make people more responsive to one another. This will help you be more effective as a leader by increasing employee engagement and strategic alignment with the goals you lay out for the team after you’ve gathered input from your listening tour.

So, incoming leader, there is no time to waste if the transition is already underway. The “why” for sharing is clear. You must now ask yourself “what” it is that you’ll decide to share.

About the Authors

Katharine P. Stallard is a partner of Connection Culture Group and a contributing author to Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

Photo by Jason Goodman on Unsplash

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