Behavioral dynamics around a new boss

One of the most interesting studies of human behavior can be conducted when an organization has a leadership change at the top.

A new leader wants to make a mark, wants to proof him- or herself. The pressure of books on strategy and 100-day plans for new leaders, of hiring executive boards who gave the new leader targets to shape up the results, and (not least) of apprehensive, excited or stubborn employees who stop doing what they used to do because things will probably change anyway. All these expectations cause most new leaders to behave differently than they would do once they’re settled into their job.

However, the behavior of the new leader is actually not the most fascinating. The behavior of (some of) the employees is.

If you think people behave fairly consistently, watch what happens when a new top manager starts. At first, both the leader as well as the employees around the new person, behave at their best. They want to make a good first impression. The process resembles courting, but with a power twist. The employees expect the boss to have a double agenda (to change the world as they know it), so they will work hard to protect their own position. It’s not uncommon to see how people not only defend viewpoints they vehemently disagreed with before, but even seem genuinely convinced of them. Just to stay in line with the ideas of the new boss, to avoid jeopardizing their position.

It demonstrates how a change in power usually initiates a kaleidoscopic shift in the opinions, actions and attitudes of people close to the new boss. Most people desperately want to secure a premium place in the new reality, so they adjust their behavior to appease the new leader. Although the underlying psychological need is understandable, the extend of this effect baffles me every time.

A new leader benefits most from people who helps him/her understand the organization, the history, and point out risks or sensitivities without being stubborn. Who basically treat the new leader as they would a new colleague, without the politics of pleasing the new boss and vehemently protecting their carved out space.

On the other hand, this can only happen when the new leader openly communicates about what s/he wants to achieve, and welcomes all viewpoints instead of favoring specific viewpoints from day one.

So next time, when there’s a leadership change, ask the new boss to be open about what they want to achieve. And return that with your open and honest opinions, while continuing your job the best way you can. You do yourself, your boss and the organization a favor.

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