I was recently promoted to lead a team I’ve been on for over a year. We started out with a very good team leader, but it became apparent that he was leading too many teams and didn’t have the time. He recommended to his boss that I take it on. He asked me if I was interested and I said yes, and the next thing I knew it was a done deal. Normally in my company, jobs are posted, people apply, and it all feels equitable. But this time, probably because we are growing so fast and there is so much going on, they skipped that step and just made the announcement. I guess because I am not getting a raise or a title change, they thought it would be okay to just cut to the chase.
Well, I wish they hadn’t. My peers—or I guess I should say former peers—are not happy about the way things went down. As I grapple with trying to find my footing, all I see on Zoom is a bunch of glum faces. When I ask questions, ask for ideas, or try to get discussion going, I get crickets. I used to have great relationships with everyone on the team and now I feel like they all hate me.
I feel very alone and there is so much work to do. I am afraid the team, in protest, will sabotage all of the good things we had going on. I am a nervous wreck. Help.
Thrown to the Wolves
Dear Thrown to the Wolves,
This sounds really hard. I’m so sorry.
There are a couple of things here. It is clear that the process your former lead used to replace himself skipped some critical steps—like giving you the job description and the terms of your agreement, for starters. I wonder if you would have agreed to take on that much more responsibility without a pay raise. I am raising one eyebrow here and wondering if you might want to revisit that decision. Perhaps you should have a conversation with your old team lead (if he is still your boss) or your new boss.
Now. How to get your team onboard with you as their leader? It will take some guts, but if you don’t create a space to talk about the herd of elephants in the room, I don’t know that you will be able to get past it. Start with the truth: you were barely consulted and were tossed into the deep end. It will be hard to tell the truth without throwing your former team lead under the bus, but if you just stick to the facts about how things went down, you should be okay. You can call out that you understand how the process was unfair and that although you had no hand in creating the situation, you recognize how it must feel. Call out the weirdness of now being the boss of people who were your peers five minutes ago. If it feels right, go ahead and share the silver lining of having been peers with everyone on the team by noting the superpower of each member of the team. Say whatever you need to say about how awkward your position is, but keep it short and sweet. Give everyone on the team a chance to say whatever they need to say about it. The more you make it about them, the better off you will be.
Then share that you care about the whole team, you want success for everyone, and you can’t do it without them. Ask for their input on what it would look like if you did a good job. Listen carefully, take notes, and commit to anything that sounds reasonable. You might take their feedback, give it some thought, and create a list of commitments you feel confident you can keep.
The more you choose to come from a place of serving both the greater good of the team as a whole and the success of each individual on the team, the more they will be willing to accept you in the role. For more on servant leadership, click here. Share your vision for how great the team can continue to be. Share the values you lean on as a leader, if you know what they are. Share your expectations of yourself. Lay out a list of all the cool things the team is working on and connect each one to the goals of the organization so they are reminded of the importance of the work you are all doing.
In the next meeting, get input from the team on what has been working well and what they might want to change in the team culture, so that you all have an opportunity to build the team anew.
As you go, you will want to set up one-on-one meetings with each member of the team. Ask questions and just listen to the answers. Questions might be something like:
- Other than your feeling betrayed about how the transfer of leadership happened, is there anything I have done that has broken trust with you?
- What can I do to gain your trust?
- What else do you want me to know?
- Is there anything you see that you think I should start doing, stop doing, do more of, do less of?
- Do you have any specific interests or strengths you have not been able to leverage as much as you’d like that I should know about?
- What other advice do you have for me?
Meeting one-on-one with you will give team members an opportunity to vent their feelings more candidly than they might have in the group. Just really listen, reflect back what you hear, ask clarifying questions. Don’t defend yourself or get into a discussion. If you feel compelled to discuss something, make a note and loop back and do it in a subsequent conversation.
The more you are willing to be vulnerable and listen, the quicker your team will get over themselves and get back to work.
If you weren’t capable of managing this very difficult situation, your former team lead wouldn’t have chosen you. Remind yourself of what you are best at and trust yourself to be smart, caring, and attentive. You will have a cohesive wolf pack before you know it.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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