Stepping into a high profile role and inheriting a fractured team can be testing for any leader – but as Liz Truss picks up the prime ministerial reins this week, she faces a monumental challenge.
Not only is she under immediate pressure to tackle the cost of living crisis, soaring energy bills, rising industrial unrest, and the catastrophe unfolding in the NHS, she must also contend with division among the Tory ranks, and what many have described as a toxic environment within government.
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Putting the in-fighting to bed (a group of MPs are reportedly already drawing up letters of no confidence) and establishing a healthy, supportive culture will be critical if Truss and her cabinet are to deliver on some of the most pressing economic and social challenges in living memory.
So, what are the key steps that she – and any other leader looking to mend divisions and move forward – will need to take?
Maximise the new energy
When a new leader takes over, there’s often a sense of energy and excitement. Harnessing that energy and capitalising on it during the first few days is vital. It’s a prime opportunity for a new leader to convey a clear vision and sense of purpose and start to align their team around a core set of values.
In a high-stakes situation such as the one Truss finds herself in, it’s important to focus on building trust quickly. People need to be assured that their leader will build a psychologically safe environment, where they can speak up and air concerns and ideas without fear of negative consequences.
A strong culture of feedback (where feedback is welcomed, sought and given constructively) is fundamental to building the high trust environment people need if they are to operate effectively.
Challenge negative behaviour
If a new leader is to build bridges and get their team working harmoniously, negative or inappropriate behaviour needs to be called out. If there is an atmosphere of collusion, back-stabbing, gossip and rumour, the team won’t be able to concentrate on the job in hand.
Leaders who have an understanding of conflict and how it arises and plays out in teams will be best placed to challenge unhelpful behaviour in a constructive way and create compassionate and collaborative cultures.
Harness the power of diversity
Leaders dealing with challenging situations don’t need to be surrounded by ‘yes’ people. Healthy debate, facilitated well, will deliver new insights and innovation. The key to transforming the culture and delivering maximum performance is to build a team of people who will support their leader, but who will bring diverse views and constructively challenge both the leader and each other.
If leaders can find ways to take the adversity out of diversity and channel a positive ethos, they will be able to deliver great results.
Divided and toxic cultures cannot be fixed overnight, but if leaders role models the values and behaviours they want their teams to espouse, and make the difficult decisions that often come with a new role in a way that is fair and respectful to all, they will be off to a good start.
David Liddle is CEO of The TCM Group and author of Transformational Culture