How to avoid nasty mutiny as the new boss

Let’s face it, when we finally get that role we've been seeking as leader in an amazing organisation, we can’t wait to get our hands dirty and put our stamp on the place. After all, that’s why they hired us, right? To bring new perspective from different experience. We’re meant to improve things. They expect change.

Here’s what happens:

The existing staff wait anxiously for our changes. Most of the time they expect change for change’s sake. They know that while we mean well, we are going to want to do it our way. And not theirs. It can feel adversarial from the start.

The new boss can also be seen as a saviour. Huge expectations to right all wrongs can be placed at our feet. This too can set us up for failure. High expectations precipitate big disappointment if we don’t deliver.

If there has been a rapid succession of predecessors, each leaving in rushed circumstances, this can leave teams exhausted, change weary. Cynicism oozes through the day.

Conversely, if we are replacing a well-loved, well-known, and long-serving boss, we can run headlong in to nostalgia born of familiarity. It can feel like fighting a ghost.

Regardless of which scenario we find ourselves walking in to, here is what we can do to build bridges and not burn them with our new teams:

Give yourself 100 days.

It takes that long to look, listen, and learn. Take advantage of your fresh eyes, of seeing things from an untainted perspective. Ask ‘why’ for what you observe. Be curious about the development of practices and traditions rather than judgmental. Pay attention to culture flags, the symbols that mean something to the team. Listen to the language people use. What is the tone and key themes? Map the social dynamics. Where are the alliances, the power groups, the real influencers?

Find out what matters.

Undertake a culture survey and find out your employer net promoter score. How much will staff promote the workplace as a good place to work? What words do they use to describe the culture? What is most important to them to keep in place? What are the things they want changed?

Invite them to play.

We might be the new boss, but they’ve been the ones keeping the place ticking over. Invite them to be part of building on what has gone before. We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Do intention and language hygiene.

Pay attention to how you describe the new team and staff. Are your words full of criticism? Do you find yourself judging them? It’s natural to see areas for improvement when we first come on board. We need to be careful that this does not turn in to evaluation without enough context. It may be that some team members are not performing at the level we wish them to. They might not have the attitude and ability we feel we need to build the new plan. Be careful that this assessment does not turn to disdain. This attitude can seep through our pores and people will smell our scorn. This is a surefire way to breed anxiety and cripple the culture.

Lead with respect. Make courageous decisions with compassion. As the new boss we want to weave the fabric of the past with the promise of the future. When we can bridge these two worlds, we bring people with us.

What is your experience as a new boss with an old team? What worked and what didn’t? What advice would you give to others?


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