In the business world employees generally don’t elect their leaders. Instead, corporate decision makers choose the people they think should lead and appoint them to positions of power. In this process, person A is placed at the helm of a division, region, area or subsidiary often shocking the line employees who had no say in the matter. Exclusion from the selection process ultimately causes a majority of employees to challenge the validity of the newly appointed leader. This opposition is composed of three factions: (1) Disgruntled subordinates who believe they deserved the promotion themselves but were overlooked (2) Paralyzed employees who worry the leadership change will jeopardize their job and obsess over this notion instead of working (this group will need to be reassured). (3) Neutral Observers who are indifferent to the new leadership and can be swayed in either direction.
These factions can create a challenging and hostile environment and while some new leaders manage to skillfully navigate this minefield through the building of cooperation, and consensus, the majority destroy themselves by becoming frustrated and resorting to authoritarian tactics in order to manage dissent.
For most people starting a new job comes with its share of anxiety and it is no different for new leaders. In fact early job jitters can be amplified for an incoming leader because they are eager to prove that their appointment is justified. With the best of intentions, they set out on a mission to drive results in a creative and productive business environment. However, many of these newly minted leaders make the mistake of misinterpreting the resistance of these intransigents as temporary doubt among the rank and file. This error in judgment is usually a result of inexperience and a failure to see things from others’ perspectives. The negative impact this resistance has on the new leaders short-term actions leads to irreversible trends in their long-term methodologies.
When appointed, the new leader devises a plan of action, and believes passionately in the validity of the ideas and solutions they put forth. But the unanticipated level of dissent from the line employees makes implementation of these proposals difficult with each new directive being questioned or opposed by employees who declare the ideas won’t work. In the face of this opposition, things don’t move at the pace the new leader expects and frustration builds. Ongoing roadblocks are intensified by pressure to perform; inevitably driving the unskilled leader to knee-jerk reactions and authoritarian tactics.
Resorting to the power of their title they threaten subordinates to “do what I tell you to do or else” locking themselves into an “us versus them” culture, creating permanent enemies and compromising their long-term leadership style. With one move, the flawed leader abandons inclusiveness and demands obedience making it clear they intend to be served rather than to serve.
Ironically, the new leader did not set out to become a top-down dictator, but circumstances and errors in judgment drastically altered their original intentions. Now an authoritarian management style is firmly established and will be resisted by the opposing trenches.
While the undesired authoritarian leadership is primarily due to a lack of transparency in the appointment process and stubborn employee resistance, new leaders must rise above these obstacles. The most effective new leaders patiently identify the most influential members of the rank and file and engage them. Getting their feedback on the new vision they sort out the rational and irrational objections.
Through dialogue, the new leader diffuses dissent. With open-ended communication, the new vision and initiatives become the property of everyone. By considering the opinions of all, the leader demonstrates a willingness to serve rather than to be served, a very important distinction for sustainability.
Accepting that people do not instantly come to the same conclusions, no matter how rational the vision or direction seems, the leader demonstrates patience, flexibility, and a commitment to the collective vision, communicating at all times why this new path makes sense, building confidence and credibility with influential members in the line of command.
Newly appointed leaders must refrain from the urge to become coercive or authoritarian. Acute awareness and preparation for stronger than anticipated initial dissent will reduce frustration and help leaders avoid unwise knee-jerk reactions. Wise leaders will in fact implement sensible suggestions of employees; while leaders may reject other proposals, they will listen to all. When employees have had their voices heard they are generally more content.