View from the Bridge

Stepping Into an Interim Leadership Role

By Kirk Mahlen, Advisor When stepping into any Interim leadership role, it is sometimes necessary to deal with difficult employee morale issues. In some cases, the truth of the matter and the reason for your arrival as Interim cannot even be discussed with employees for any number of reasons. Fortunately, whatever has occurred in the past needs to remain in the past and be viewed quite simply as “water under the bridge”.

What really matters in these situations is that history is not allowed to repeat itself and that all collateral damage including, but not limited to, employee morale, is quickly and efficiently repaired. As such, it’s important to start by recognizing the telltale signs of an organization or department where trust has been lost and rumors run rampant.

The real problem: It is difficult to build trust and effectively lead with employee morale issues clouding every action and decision. Personal experience led me to a number of common principles and practices for dealing with such situations and the resulting collateral damage. The 10 principles and practices below are simple and practical and can be applied to any situation where there is rapid and unplanned turnover at any level within an organization. To be sure, these do not represent an exhaustive listing and many books and articles have been dedicated to this topic – for more detailed research, try googling “dealing with organizational transition following leadership changes”.

1. Gather Facts to Develop Intelligence and Know the Truth

Seems obvious, but make sure you have the relevant facts straight before forming any biases, prejudices, or other impressions. How important is it to hear about “all of the juicy details” anyway? My impression is that many of the intimate details are mostly a waste of time and fodder for gossip – the assumption being that there is no “good gossip”. Understand, accept, and move forward with strategies and plans to repair the damage.

2. Be Empathetic but Don’t Let Feelings & Emotions Rule the Day

Let your staff/employees speak openly and honestly – at least for a while. Acknowledge that there is a natural process for adjusting, reconciling, forgiving, and moving on. As employees speak and you listen, be sure to wear your heart on your sleeve. In other words, be open and honest vs. cunning or devious.

3. Be Open and Transparent While Defining and Communicating Boundaries

Once again, let staff express themselves by asking questions in a respectful manner. At the same time, be honest and upfront in no uncertain terms about what is appropriate and inappropriate to discuss as it relates to the situation. For the good of the order, do not tolerate or allow staff to act out negative and detrimental behaviors.

4. Circle the Wagons and Get Rid of Bad Apples

Same as getting the right people on the bus. Believe it or not, there may be detractor employees who are so roiled by the situation and what happened to their former trusted peer or boss, that they cannot be salvaged. Be prepared to have difficult conversations and make difficult decisions.

5. Mingle with the Team Troops

The importance of “mingling” or “Gemba walk” cannot be overstated. This consists of listening, observing, interacting, and telling stories/communicating from the heart. Depending on both personal and organizational norms, rules, policies, and procedures, I think it’s safe to say that, while it’s not always clear, most forms of mingling are allowed.

6. Establish Metrics (Baseline and Targeted)

How bad are things with employee morale and engagement? How much better should they get? You need numbers to determine current state and targeted improvements.

7. Conduct Surveys and Questionnaires

With large numbers of staff (arbitrarily say >50 but that could vary), surveys and questionnaires, if administered properly, can be particularly effective, whether anonymous or not, in eliciting the true tenor of the team.

8. Facilitate Focus Groups

Another technique for eliciting the true tenor of the team. Also offers immediate feedback and group problem-solving if correctly orchestrated. Depending on purpose or theme, the focus group may be used to follow-up on any previously used surveys or questionnaires. Determine who should participate – the entire team or select representatives. Schedule and send out invites. Success will be dependent on your skills as a facilitator.

9. Have Some Faith

Obvious. Non-secular definition: Complete trust or confidence that what you are doing is the right and best course of action leading to a desired outcome. Recognize that this is a difficult process with many different variables. There are rarely easy answers and there are certainly no guarantees of success in these matters. Remember and know that life goes on and accept that you’ve done your best.

10. Build Trust & Celebrate the Future

Everything described above is about building trust and confidence in you, your vision, employee satisfaction and maybe actualization or the fulfillment of a dream, the future of the department/organization.… There can only be limited progress without trust. It’s difficult to honestly celebrate anything with someone you don’t trust even if all objectives have been met.

While the number of situations, variables, and alternatives is practically unlimited, I have found that relying on these 10 principles and practices will usually optimize my chances for successfully dealing with difficult employee morale issues.

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