scorecardIt can be hard for a new boss to earn respect - but experts say there are psychological tricks to speed things up
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It can be hard for a new boss to earn respect - but experts say there are psychological tricks to speed things up

It can be hard for a new boss to earn respect - but experts say there are psychological tricks to speed things up
StrategyStrategy4 min read

boss manager meeting

Sebastian ter Burg/Flickr

Don't expect to be respected immediately.

  • It takes time for a new boss to earn respect.
  • Expert-backed strategies for speeding up the process include asking for feedback, focusing on strengths, and learning what makes someone excel in your organization.
  • Remember: You won't gain your team's respect just because you're in a position of authority. You have to show that you can do the job well.

Art Markman knows how Day One as a new boss typically goes.

Unless you have a track record of major accomplishments that speak for themselves - and sometimes even then - "everyone is standing there waiting to see what you're going to do," said Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Inevitably, he added, there will be people "who either wanted that position for themselves or had their money on a different candidate." That is to say, in his words, "you always have a certain number of people that you're trying to convince to go along with you."

The process of convincing them, and of earning your team's respect, can be long, arduous, and at times even awkward. But it's hardly impossible. In fact, social scientists and leadership experts have identified a few key strategies that can help hasten the process.

Show that you can do the job well - then show that you're likable

Whether you're interacting with your subordinates or with any new acquaintances, research suggests that you're being evaluated on two dimensions: warmth and competence. While both pieces are important, as a new leader, you'll want to display competence first, said Adam Galinsky, a professor of business at the Columbia Business School.

In other words, make it a priority to show that you can do the job well - and only then show some vulnerability, or humanity. You can accomplish the first part relatively quickly by following through on your promises and on what people ask you for, said Markman. "Under-promise and over-deliver."

And as for warmth? Experts told the Harvard Business Review about the importance of forging personal connections with employees.

"Do something that makes them believe that you are one of them," Jim Dougherty, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and former software CEO told HBR. Maybe you host brown-bag lunches, or simply chat about common interests. Dougherty said the goal is to signal that "even though you are the boss, in the end you're all in this together."

Don't aim for perfection

Unfortunately, too many eager new leaders fall into the same trap.

"You're in a new position and you don't want to reveal that you don't have a clue what you're doing," said Joe Folkman, president and co-founder at leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman. "So what do you do? Well, you certainly don't ask questions and you certainly don't ask for feedback. And that is the deadly problem."

Folkman said most of the executives he's worked with assume that asking for feedback would make people doubt their competence - when, in fact, Harvard Business School research has shown just the opposite. "There's an absolutely clear correlation between people who ask for and act on feedback and their perceived effectiveness," Folkman added.

Remember though: Your goal is hardly to be perceived as flawless. "A lot of people think that they need to perfect. There can't be anything they're not good at," Folkman said. Frankly, they're delusional.

Zenger Folkman has assessed leaders on 16 distinct competencies and found that managers who excel at three competencies - any three, doesn't matter which - fall in the top 20% of leaders.

In other words, a leader needs to discern "what it is they are bringing to the party that's exceptional" - according to the feedback they receive - and double down on those strengths. "The funny thing is that if you're good at a few things, people keeping looking past [your deficiencies]," Folkman said.

Learn what makes someone excel here

Aside from the necessary introspection, becoming a leader requires understanding what makes someone excel in this particular organization.

Galinsky offered an example based on research conducted by Cameron Anderson at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2008, Anderson co-authored a study that found employees' personality traits predict their influence in an organization, even beyond factors like job performance.

Specifically, in engineering firms, conscientiousness - i.e. working hard and being organized - is a highly valued trait, while in consulting firms, extroversion - i.e. outgoingness - matters more.

Your goal should be to discern what particular traits and behaviors are valued in your organization. Galinsky said you can "speed up" the process of earning respect "if you can match the cues that you're emanating with the [traits] that are valued in that group."

Galinsky said you can also find out which individuals are already respected in the organization, and get some of those people to advocate on your behalf (assuming you actually know them and have a solid relationship).

Perhaps most importantly, new leaders need to be patient. Whether you know your predecessor or whether you've simply heard stories about the person, it's almost always intimidating to step into their shoes.

"It just takes some time as people learn trust is not an immediate thing," Folkman said. "You don't give people trust because of their position," he added. "You give people trust because they earn it."