Taking over from an Incompetent Leader


Becoming the leader of an existing team can be challenging, but taking over from an incompetent leader is more difficult. Incompetent leaders are not only ineffective at achieving the team’s goals. They think and act in ways that detract from and undermine the team’s performance, working relationships, and well-being. Consequently, in addition to forging agreement on the normal issues of mission, goals, and roles, incoming leaders often find their new team in disarray, dealing with conflict and stress. Building a stronger team means addressing these emotionally-laden issues.

There are several steps leaders facing this situation can take:

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 criticize 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 organization, 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.

Temporarily suspend judgment about whether team members are resisting changes to improve team functioning and accountability. Teams that have been led by incompetent leaders often have insufficient or stifling structures, processes and accountability. Team members have received mixed messages about what is expected of them and they have often been treated poorly, without regard to their well-being. It’s easy to think that because you are increasing predictability and psychological safety, team members will quickly and enthusiastically embrace your changes. But team members may welcome the changes and have concerns about effects of the changes. They may worry that you will use the increased accountability punitively or that the changes in expectations will reveal their weaknesses, which will put their jobs at risk. As a result, they may not fully implement the changes. It’s easy to infer that these members are simply resisting change. If instead, if you get curious and understand they concerns, you can design team changes in a way that address the concerns at the same time it achieves the results the team needs.

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 behavior; 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.

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