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New leader – how to shorten the process of assimilation?

After publishing recent articles, I received questions about tools that could support the new leader coming from outside the organization to an existing team. What seemed to be particularly interesting was the possibility of reducing the time of assimilation and avoiding unnecessary errors not associated with intent, but rather with the way they are implemented in an unrecognized business context.

One of the more effective tools that can be used to implement a new leader into an organization is the process called “assimilation of a new leader”. This is an interactive facilitation tool that speeds up the process of mutual learning, minimizing the number of unknowns, and allowing for basic expectations and frameworks to be established. Properly conducted, it helps participants to shorten the time of mutual testing and error of learning and, as a consequence, channel the team’s energy to achieve goals within the new organizational framework.

Let’s start by discussing the context in which it is likely to be successfully implemented.

Situational context

The emergence of a new boss in the organization immediately generates a multitude of questions that demand answers. All available official and whispered information are being checked. It is easy to imagine that most of them are burdened with many perceptual errors. Subjectivity evaluates over facts, and the transmission of this data by the mouth-to-mouth method only increases the amount of distortion. This is a bit like playing Chinese whispers when one message passed by many people changes its semantic context at the end of the process.

The distorted data gotten is then discussed within the organization, which fosters the development of many hypotheses for future cooperation and possible decisions. As a consequence, when a new leader appears on the first day in the organization, he meets an image of himself created by his new team. Interestingly, in critical situations, individuals are more likely to interpret facts in relation to an image created by themselves than the actual image of the boss. This is obviously justified emotionally. There is such a stereotype that it is better to predict the worst than to be disappointed. In a situation of changing a boss, which is perceived by many as a threat, this attitude is fully emotionally valid, though often ineffective.

How can this be helped?

The guiding principle of the “Assimilation of a New Leader” process is to verify unknowns, fears, doubts, and possible hypotheses that arose in a team about this new boss with real answers directly from the source. Because direct contact with the supervisor may make it difficult or challenging to ask specific questions, it is important to have a facilitator who is outside the organization and who guarantees impartiality and discretion, which in turn promotes greater openness in verifying personal concerns or doubts about the future cooperation with a new leader.

Components of the process

“Assimilation of a new leader” is a four-stage process in which both the boss and the team have the opportunity to get to know each other’s expectations, their preferred style of co-operation, and to define the rules on which to lay future co-operation.


Stage 1 – Introduction

During this phase, all participants (new boss and team) will know the rules of the assimilation process. The main assumptions and objectives are discussed as well as the different stages of this process. Particular emphasis is put on the principle of discretion and anonymity when generating individual questions for the leader and the need for openness when communicating their doubts. An external facilitator guarantees that the individual questions will not be identified with a particular person, which could have negative consequences in the future.

Stage 2 – Question generator

The boss leaves the team, who stays with the facilitator of the assimilation process. This starts with the process of raising fears, doubts and hypotheses in the form of questions that will be asked of the new supervisor. Below are the most frequently asked questions grouped in terms of areas of cooperation:

Style of action:

  • What are your strengths?
  • What weaknesses should we know about?
  • What do you do when the team fails to deliver results?
  • What do you do when someone makes the same mistake several times?
  • How often do you want us to update you on progress?
  • To what extent can we discuss your decisions?
  • What makes you nervous?
  • How do you behave when you lose control?

Communication and solving problems

  • Do you accept draft of proposals, or should they be in final form?
  • To what extent do you want to be informed about the problems?
  • To what extent do you assist in developing solutions?
  • What are your preferences for emails, phone calls, meetings?
  • What time can I contact you by phone?
  • What time will you expect us to be in reach of “e-mail, phone, etc.”?
  • To what extend are you open for changes in established processes, rules, procedures?
  • What can we do when you are around?
  • What is you unacceptable for you?

Decision-making process

  • Do you consider the team’s opinion when making decisions?
  • How do you communicate it?
  • Is it possible to discuss controversial decisions with you?
  • How can we appeal against decisions that are not in line with the team members’ inner conviction?
  • To what extent will you encourage independence in team members’ decision-making?
  • Will you maintain the current areas of responsibility?
  • If they change, what are the basis for the verification?

Evaluation of employee’s competencies

  • What will you pay attention to in regards to cooperation?
  • How will group and individual goals be set?
  • What makes a given employee highly appreciated by you?
  • How will feedback be provided?
  • How will you support the development of professional skills of employees?
  • What is your attitude towards training and development programs?

Step 3 – Preparation of a new leader to address these questions

In this phase, the facilitator returns to the leader with a list of questions and together they prepare to meet the team and provide substantive answers to the questions asked. If the answer is inaccurate or impossible, the facilitator will support the leader in finding the right answer to this question. When all points are addressed, the fourth stage begins – the leader’s meeting with the team.

Stage 4 – Leader meets the team

There are three parties involved in the meeting: team, leader and facilitator. The leader’s role is to provide precise answers prepared in advance, and the role of the facilitator is to ensure that the process is smooth and factual. It often happens that some answers generate new questions or doubts, then the facilitator supports team communication in situations of misinterpretation of the team’s actions or intentions, ensuring confidentiality.

Moreover, at this stage, there may be differences in the ways in which the boss and team may function, which in the future may be a source of misunderstandings or conflicts. Facilitator, who is an external observer seeing the symptoms of these situations if possible, tries to solve them on continuously – moderating the determination of a particular action plan. And if that is not the case, he prepares development guidelines for the leader after the meeting with the team.

Such an encounter can also become a catalyst for previously undiscovered dynamics in the group. This is the best moment for both the leader and the team to face any dysfunctions in it and redefine the basis for its functioning. The result of this phase should be established rules of cooperation both with the leader and the whole team, which from that day forward become the decalogue of its functioning in the organization.

Next steps

In order to complete the process of assimilation of the leader, individual meetings are required which take place without the presence of a facilitator. They are designed to meet team members and to align the rules of the work – setting mutual communication preferences and individual cooperation principles in the context of presentations from a group meeting. Of course, it is worthwhile to make arrangements for the meeting to be kept in writing so that you can return to them freely if necessary.

What to keep in mind?

The process of assimilation of a new leader is an attractive approach when introducing a new leader to an organization or team. Unfortunately, I encountered situations when this process was applied to the boss, who has already finished his trial period. Over the first 100 days in the organization, there have been misunderstandings and then someone comes up with the idea of using this method to straighten the situation.

Experience shows that such ideas often fail, because this process will only work if the new boss is not yet active in the organization. To paraphrase a famous saying that the first impression can only be made once, I would say that the assimilation of a new leader can only be done at the beginning of his functioning in the organization.

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