How to win the loyalty of your new team

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Q: Chief Stewardess:

“I joined a yacht as a new Chief Stewardess nearly a month ago and the existing team are resisting my authority. The last Chief Stew was well-liked, but was fired suddenly by the owners’ wife and I was brought in really quickly as her replacement. These things happen in yachting, but the way the crew are behaving you’d think I’d murdered her! I know the interior crew are still loyal to the old Chief Stew and I’m trying to respect their adjustment process, but I really need to get on with things. Big changes need to be made to make the owners happy and get the interior running the way I need it to, yet my team are fighting my changes at every turn, and everything I do and say is met with either sulking or an unspoken air of resentment. How can I turn this around or do I have to just fire them all and build a whole new interior from scratch?”

A: The Crew Coach:

Joining a yacht as a new HOD is a tough gig, particularly in a case like yours where the outgoing Chief Stew was well-liked and there’s a cloud hanging over her departure.

When a team feel disgruntled about a leadership change they didn’t want, they often suffer ‘confirmation bias’ in their dealings with the new leader. What does ‘confirmation bias’ mean? Well, we all do it: it’s where we actively seek out ‘proof’ that what we feared or predicted is actually happening.

Sound familiar? In practice, it pretty much means that everything you do or say is taken the wrong way because that fits in with the other person’s predetermined beliefs. In your case, the crew will probably be actively seeking signs that you’re ‘coming in and throwing your weight around by changing everything’. They may have decided you’re ‘difficult’ (our perceptions of new bosses are typically formed within 5 days) and will be doing everything they can to find ‘justifying evidence’ for this opinion.

Speaking of which, it does sound like you are changing a lot of things, so you need to work hard at bringing everyone over to your side on this. Whenever you need to get people ‘onboard’ with new ways of doing things, or changes you want to implement, you do need to engage and involve them in this rather than just ‘dictating’ to them. This shows that you are both reasonable and a listener. Perhaps you could consider slowing down your rate of change until you get everyone behind a few things, and prioritise the most important changes you want to make for now.

This dynamic can be particularly fierce if the crew are discussing you among themselves, as it’s hard to change their ‘verdict’ when they’ve already publicly aired it in the crew mess. As such, it can be good to call a team meeting to draw a line under any past unpleasantness in order to give everyone a chance to air any grievances, find ways to move forward together and form a new balanced opinion.

Remember, what’s underneath their behaviour: because they are unsettled and feeling powerless, they will be seizing upon any ‘proof’ they see that their world is changing for the worse, even if it’s not. Although you know you are going to make things better, they are not sure of this yet, so it’s your job to put their minds at ease.

Change is unpleasant for most people. They may also be fearing for their own positions, which could be causing them to act up in a perversely childish way. It’s common with a sudden changeover like this for a frisson of fear to run through the team that the new chief will be looking for opportunities to fire people and bring in her own crew. It can be helpful to talk about future plans with your crew members to lay their minds at rest about this.

Be careful not to fall into the trap of bagging the way the old Chief Stew did things. With a ‘hostile’ crew, this will be a disaster for getting your team on your side as they are still aligned to these old ways, so be diplomatic about them and win everyone over to a better way of doing it through proving your way actually does make life easier for everyone.

It will help to keep in mind that this is all behaviour of people that are scared about their futures, frustrated about things changing out of their control and sad about losing the old Chief Stew from their lives. Even if she wasn’t perfect, they knew how to deal with her and now your arrival is forcing them to adjust.

When it all gets too frustrating, bear in mind that the loyalty your crew are showing to their old Chief Stew is a sign that they are loyal people, which is actually a very good thing once you harness it. Ride this out with respect and understanding, and their loyalty can also become yours.

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Alison Rentoul

Alison Rentoul

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