Managing Groups and Teams/Managing Leadership Transitions


The transition period of replacing a leader within a company is often not a very costly time for not only the company, but all personnel involved. In the 1992 study "Turnover and Evole Models for Family Leave," researchers J. Douglas Phillips and Barbara Reisman estimate that the cost of replacing a top-level manager is about 150 percent of the manager's base salary. These costs can include: accrued annual leave, substantial severance pay, executive recruitment activities, interim management costs and numerous intangible and indirect costs. This chapter examines how to successfully manage the transition from team member to team leader. It is important to have an effective strategy for this transition because it has a direct impact on the future performance of the team and its leader. This transitional phase sets behavioral norms for team members, establishes performance standards, affects members’ motivation, and creates the leader’s and members’ perceptions about their ability to excel as a cohesive unit. Data from Development Dimensions International [1] concerning leadership transitions states that nearly one out of every five "people managers" rank transitioning leadership as the most challenging life event one could experience and at the strategic level, these numbers are even higher, often times placing transitions above divorce, managing teenagers, moving and even becoming a parent.

The managing leadership transitions chapter is divided into multiple sections and is designed to be either read completely or referred to simply as reference. The first section examines the functional and psychological impacts that this phase can have on team members and transitioning leaders. The second section explores the challenges that a newly promoted team leader faces when establishing influence over the team members who were once teammates. The best methods for establishing influence over a team are also assessed. Section three provides practical advice for newly promoted leaders to accelerate the transition process from team member to full fledged team leader, while setting both the leader and the team up for future performance success.

Functional and Psychological Impacts of Transitioning from Team Member to Team LeaderEdit

Being promoted to a team leadership role brings many challenges. One of the more difficult obstacles encountered is when promotion occurs from within the team. The new leader finds him in a position of authority over a group of team members he previously worked alongside. This can result in struggle for both the team and the leader as roles are reassigned and individuals adjust to the new relationship. As companies and schools place more emphasis on teamwork, people find themselves facing this conflict of moving from peer to supervisor more often. What may have once been an easy relationship based on shared experiences is now one of shifted dynamics and unease among the team. Despite the increasing occurrence of this event, the transition rarely goes smoothly and often is unsuccessful. In an attempt to better understand why some individuals succeed in making the change to team leader, many studies have been done to help identify root causes and potential solutions. Among those concepts identified are social biases and role conflict. In this section we hope to further explore these concepts and the role they play in the team member to team leader transition.

The newly promoted team leader may find them struggling with role conflict. He/she must learn how to balance the relationships built as a peer and the new responsibility of acting as the boss. Maurice B. Mittelmark’s editorial "Social ties and health promotion: suggestions for population-based research", comments on studies which examine role conflict and its adverse psychological and functional impacts. As applied to transitions from team member to leader, the article supports the proposition that new leaders will be less successful at managing the team and more psychologically stressed if the leader tries to maintain multiple roles, as teammate and team leader. “The Role Conflict situation is that in which multiple roles… are perceived to demand too much time and attention...” The article places “emphasis on multiple roles as the stress factor, not on too low capacity to perform as expected (although P [the team leader] may nevertheless take blame for not being able to manage somehow).” A real world example of the significant impact of leadership transitions occurs at a US Freightways hub in Holland, where they have been able to study the effect of transitioning terminal managers. The US Freightways hub in Holland has 59 terminals and regularly sees a 20% annual turnover in terminal managers, thus nearly 12 transitions per year. Taking the 12 transitions per year and multiplying that by the average effective time of 4 months per transition, US Freightways calculated that at any time, 4 terminals or nearly 7% of their hub were consistently operating ineffectively. The calculations performed by US Freightways follow:



When a team leader proves ineffective at managing the team member and team leader role, the psychological stress of trying to juggle multiple roles and consistently meeting deadlines will ultimately cause the leader to fail. The failure is more often a result of this stress than the increased functional workloads associated with performing the tasks of team leader.

Role conflict can also occur because of commitment and the brain’s strong tendency to want to be consistent with prior actions. For example, employees may lock themselves into certain roles by telling coworkers “they’ll always be there to support them.” However, when those employees are promoted the roles change. The promoted employees may find themselves stuck in certain roles because they want to remain consistent with what was said beforehand. In the example where a supervisor has to layoff a previous coworker and friend, dissonance is created and will interfere with the supervisory role. One of the first steps a new leader must take in order to increase their chances of success is to establish a policy for assessment and accountability. The role of each team member should be assessed along with a focus on accountability for each role. The leader is accountable for his team's results; each team member should know his or her roles and responsibilities. By establishing clear expectations from the team, the leader will be better positioned to lead. Most importantly, with proper planning and training on the part of the new leader, role conflict can be managed more successfully.

While there may be resistance from group members for a variety of reasons, whether it is resentment of being passed over for the promotion or doubt of one's leadership skills, it is probably in the best interest of the new supervisor to deal with those people on a case-by-case basis. Initially both the new leader and former peer may be hesitant to continue a social relationship outside of work; this does not have to be the case. As long as both parties are able to recognize and acknowledge that work stays at the office. In addition, the transition may be helped if the new leader is able to focus on the opportunity of the new position, not just for him, but the team. This will help in 3 ways:

  1. Provide framework to help separate coworkers from the leader
  2. Make the promotion and new leadership more of an uplifting goal
  3. Encourage new associations to be created for the promoted employee and the new set of peers (other leadership members)

Challenges and Methods for Establishing Influence over the TeamEdit

Imagine that you have been part of a team that has been working on a project. Having worked closely with each other for some time, each participant has become familiar with the skills and competencies of the other members and the team dynamics have been such that all consider themselves peers, having equal skills and knowledge to bring to the table. Now suppose that management is unhappy with the disappointing results that have come from this team effort and they have asked you to lead the team to the desired outcomes for which it was first established. Would you expect this new appointment to be met with resistance from your peers?

Actually, team members who transition into a managerial or team leader role in the midst of an ongoing project can face a wide array of challenges in asserting their newfound influence. Most likely the new leader is now in charge of his/her peers and it may prove difficult for team members to take direction from someone whom they still consider as an equal. The transition period for a new leader is encumbered with a variety of resistive tendencies that may not only cause delays, but also a significant loss of focus which will lead to even greater problems down the road.

Once the group dynamic changes, already existing social biases can be augmented or new social biases can arise that can further complicate the matter. Underlying social biases like false uniqueness, recency biases, and stereotyping can begin to emerge and become a prevalent part of the team atmosphere. According to Gerardo Okhuysen in his article “Managers and Social Processes” these biases have the definitions described in the table below.

Social Biases Definition
False Uniqueness The false uniqueness effect refers to the tendency we have to underestimate the number of people who do what we do, and like what we like.
Recency Biases As we gather information about others or about situations, we give much more weight to information that is acquired recently, sometimes completely forgetting all the things that happened before.
Stereotyping This is a tendency we have to simplify the world by putting people into a category, and then fitting the individual into the stereotype of that category.

These definitions take on life when put in the context of practical application. Returning to the scenario at the beginning of this section we can show how these social biases are applied to real situations.

Social Biases Situation
False Uniqueness As you begin to lead your group of peers false uniqueness may arise when your team members respond to your leadership by thinking that if they were chosen to lead the group they would have handled it differently, when in reality if given the same circumstances they would have acted exactly as you have.
Recency Biases While leading the group you may react to any negative feedback you are getting from your team by labeling them as inherently difficult or unyielding in spite of how agreeable they may have been in the past. Your bias is a response to their most recent behavior and you have nullified all prior knowledge.
Stereotyping As you take on your new leadership role the team members may now attribute characteristics to you that they feel are possessed by all managers. They may attribute to you characteristics of pride, arrogance, and self interest rather than an interest in the group, whether or not you actually display these characteristics.

While the competitive nature of many companies can certainly increase the likely occurrence of the above issues regardless of the influence the leader has; often these disruptions are signs that the newly assigned team leader’s authority is not properly recognized.

Interestingly, problems stemming from a lack of leadership authority are much more likely to surface when promotion occurs from within a team. An example of this occurred in a small defense company in California. The generation gap between the two main engineering levels was quite vast. As the project moved forward, inconsistencies in the management style of the senior project manager resulted in a prompt changing of the guard. The most qualified individual was of the younger generation and was well liked by his peers for his outgoing and fun personality, but the project manager position was not all fun and games. The six months that followed where riddled with faulty product development, severe lapses in judgment and many test series that were absent from oversight by project management. Being promoted from within caused the new project manager to be put in the difficult position of having to be in charge of the same co-workers he amused just the day before.

In order to lead effectively, a manager’s authority must be well established. In Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion, he determines “authority” to be the most effective method for leaders to influence team performance and describes the various aspects of authority as encompassing perceptual cues, such as titles, positions and appearance, concrete knowledge and expertise.

In general, superficial cues such as formal titles or a list of accolades that may lend to the authoritative image of an unfamiliar manager cannot serve an individual promoted from within a team who is already well known to the group. Managers who are promoted from within an existing team face a unique challenge with respect to establishing their influence primarily as a result of the perceptual components of authority.

The logistical and social components of leadership transitions also provide a unique challenge to any new leader, whether he/she is from inside the company or an external hire. Just as a strong functioning team can be one of the greatest assets to a manager and the entire company, an ill performing entity can rapidly bring a process to a screeching halt.

It is almost certain that the new leader of any team will be different than the previous leader, be it in management style, attitude or vision. These qualities, however good or bad, must be accepted by the entire team in order for them to collectively move forward and maintain a strong status. In retaliation to change, a vault of resistive pressures may be unleashed toward the new leader ranging from severe lack of urgency and distraction to jealousy and animosity towards all management.


Project meetings can quickly become less orderly, employees can lose focus and general chaos ensues. Many social biases including false uniqueness and stereotyping can create a wall between the new leader and his/her subordinates. The reoccurring ideas that "I could have done that better" or "he is a typical suit that does not know what is really going on here" can slowly begin to implode the team environment. Although many of these examples seem extreme, transitions in leadership often do cause logistical delays leading to a temporary rise in social bias among subordinates.

In a recent article by Sotiriou and Wittmer, “Influence Methods of Project Managers: Perceptions of Team Members and Project Managers", the authors present the findings of three separate studies that attempt to measure the importance of various factors relating to managerial influence. “Expertise” was examined as a separate factor in the project management studies but showed almost identical ratings to the “authority” component, suggesting that these components are very closely related. The studies also provided evidence that knowledge, when used as an influential method, is highly correlated to a project manager's overall effectiveness. It is evident that newly promoted managers are therefore best served by leveraging their knowledge and expertise, to help establish authority within their new role. Robert Cialdini however, identifies “liking” as an important factor in enabling people to influence others and he endorses a persuasion technique that leverages “liking” or friendship as a way for leaders to influence team members. In a situation where a colleague is promoted to a leadership role, the new manager might hope to rely on friendship ties with former peers to help motivate the team and encourage them to take direction. Managers choosing to use "liking" as a strategy for empowerment should be aware that often times team members adopt a familiarity with the new manager that is consistent with his or her collegial or “friendship” role and therefore do not properly respond to the new supervisory role.

Once a proper blend of expertise, knowledge and "non-liking" has been established, management becomes further complicated by the familiar “us vs. them” mentality that is quite common in organizations. While it is not always appropriate to rely on friendships to motivate and direct team efforts, it is still necessary to eliminate adversarial relationships between team members and team leaders. Cialdini identifies “contact and cooperation” as valuable methods of unifying groups that may originally perceive themselves to be at odds. “Conjoint efforts toward common goals” can help to overshadow contentious relationships and leaders often benefit from incorporating the inherent team challenges into a strategy focused on the major goals of the project. This approach is echoed by Sotiriou and Wittmer’s project management studies that identify the “work challenge” as the overall most important factor contributing to the positive influence of project managers. These results further support methods of motivation that emphasize creating a meaningful and challenging work environment to help transitioning managers become effective team leaders.

Managing leadership transitions is a very difficult thing to do, but there are excellent strategies that can help ease the burden on everyone involved. A well rounded combination of expertise and knowledge will foster an authoritative position for the new leader. The "liking" factor, often present when an in-group employee is promoted, can be very valuable in establishing strong positive influence. However, one must always be aware of the potential social biases and resistive tendencies of once peer, now subordinate employees. Strong leaders should work toward creating a challenging and satisfying work environment that not only focuses the team on common project goals, but also demonstrates that the leader's influence can and will lead the team to produce effective and positive outcomes. In the transition period for a new leader, the window of opportunity is short and he/she must be willing to make great strides toward establishing a solid influence over their team.

Practical Advice for Accelerating a Leadership TransitionEdit

A change in leadership of a project team requires a period of transition for everyone involved, especially the new leader. One of the best resources for practical and applicable advice about how to manage this period of transition is The First 90 Days: Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels by Michael Watkins. This book offers a structure and framework to help new leaders manage and accelerate the transition process that comes with their new role.

The book identifies ten key challenges for any new leader. We have adapted these ten challenges which can be applied when a project team member transitions into a team leadership role; later we will discuss the challenges we feel are most important for this particular situation. The ten challenges are as follows:

  1. Promote Yourself: Change your mindset to reflect the realities of your new position. Don’t assume that what has been successful for you in the past will work for you today. Your new position may require you to acquire and develop new skills in order to guarantee success for you and your new team.
  2. Accelerate Your Learning: When transitioning into a leadership role within the same company or team, the learning curve will be less steep, but an open mind is vital to any new leader’s success. As a member of the team, you were probably familiar with the industry, the company, your competitors, and the market, in addition to your own specific functions and responsibilities on the project. However, as the new leader of the team, you may not know the exact details of your teammate's responsibilities, so learning about these from your team members will be essential.
  3. Match Strategy to Situation: You need to understand the current business situation, and identify its unique challenges and opportunities. As a member of the team, you should have a good idea as to what the consequences and implications of transition will be, as well as a good sense for the team dynamics. A clear grasp of the situation will help you to develop a winning strategy in managing and accelerating the transition.
  4. Secure Early Wins: Building credibility will be essential to establishing your new role on the team, and securing early wins is the best way to achieve this. Formal authority over your former peers will only carry you so far before your team members start to think, “I could probably do a better job.” Securing early wins will demonstrate to the team that you can plan and achieve tangible goals for the group, and they will probably be more willing to follow your lead.
  5. Negotiate Success: Perhaps the most important relationship in your new leadership role will be the one between you and your new boss. It will essential that you plan and execute a series of conversations with your new boss regarding his/her expectations; ask what resources will be available to help you develop your team.
  6. Achieve Alignment: Ensure that your goals, your team’s goals, and the organization’s goals are all in alignment.
  7. Build Your Team: Inheriting a team can produce a variety of interpersonal issues. Depending on the nature of your transition, you may or may not be given authority to make personnel decisions immediately or at all. A thorough and careful assessment of the situation will help when making recommendations to your boss, and assist you in your own decisions as how to restructure your team for optimal performance.
  8. Create Coalitions: Your success will greatly depend upon your ability to influence people outside your direct line of control. As the new leader of the team, you are the voice of your team to the organization at large. You should not only build and maintain alliances with the people on your own team, but also with the key individuals within the organization who are necessary to the ultimate success of your team.
  9. Keep Your Balance: Transitions are extremely difficult to manage; it is easy to lose perspective, become isolated, and make bad decisions. To help maintain a balanced perspective, you need to develop a strong advice and counsel network both within your team and within the organization.
  10. Expedite Everyone: You need to not only accelerate your own transition, but the transitions of everyone you work with – direct reports, bosses, and peers.

The most important challenges that pertain to a team member stepping into a management or leadership role relate to those challenges described in numbers 1, 3, 4, and 5 from above. What follows is a detailed description and how the challenges apply to each situation.

Challenge 1: “Promote Yourself,” relates to the psychological transition that a team member must make when promoted to team leader. As discussed in section one, newly promoted leaders must change their perception of themselves and re-frame their roles within the team. While it may seem that the re-framing would be most difficult for the leader’s former peers, in reality it is the new leader whose own behavior must change. For example, team leaders will have to forgo the informal chit-chat and chumminess they may have formerly enjoyed with their peers. Also, managers probably won't be included in all of the after-hours fraternizing or social activities of the team.

Challenge 2: “Matching Strategy to Situation,” is arguably the most important challenge for a team member transitioning to a team leader. Without fully understanding at what stage the project team is in, a new leader will be unable to tailor the correct managerial approach to the team’s current situation; as a result the team will fail to achieve. Watkins recommends using the STaRS model (Start-up, Turn-around, Realignment, and Sustaining Success), as a framework for helping to diagnose the team’s current situation. A transitioning leader must identify the challenges and opportunities facing the team in order to recognize the structural implications underpinning their team’s ability to perform. Those who move from team member to team leader likely do so as a result from an organization's need for realignment. Often in a realignment situation, the leader’s challenge is to revitalize a team project which has deteriorated. In this situation, the leader must challenge engrained norms of behavior, convince team members that change is warranted, as well as restructure and refocus the team. These challenges are offset by potential strengths already inherent in the team; team members’ prior success serves as motivation for wanting to achieve future success.

Watkins’ assertion that transitional leaders must match their strategy to the team’s situation is in line with Hersey and Blanchard’s Developmental Theory of Leadership. This theory matches leadership style to group maturity. Group maturity is a function of time, and leadership style matches relationship-orientation and task-orientation to the group’s stage of development. In the case of transitioning leaders, the group may be mature when the teammate is promoted to team leader, but because the dynamic of the team is now changed, the leader may need to adapt his/her leadership strategy to fit the formative stage of team development. In the formative stage, the new leader should first focus on the team’s tasks. After this initial phase, the leader should then heighten his/her relationship-orientation, while maintaining equal focus on task-orientation.

Challenge 3: “Secure Early Wins,” is essential for establishing credibility as the new leader of the team. These early wins should be “team wins” as opposed to wins for the new leader. This will help build the perception that the new leader is effective not just in managing his or her own work, but more importantly getting the team to work together toward common goals. Watkins asserts that a new leader’s “earliest actions will have a disproportionate influence on how they are perceived” New leaders are perceived as more credible when they display a specific managerial style. This style, according to Watkins, consists of six components. A new leader must be (1) “demanding but able to be satisfied” (motivating members to commit to and achieve realistic goals,) (2) “accessible but not too familiar” (establishing approachability without compromising authority,) (3) “decisive but judicious” (communicating the ability to take charge without making hasty big decisions,) (4) “focused but flexible” (establishing authority but consulting team members and encouraging team input,) (5) “active without causing commotion” (building momentum without overwhelming,) and (6) “willing to make tough but humane calls ” (ensuring decisions are fair and preserve team members’ dignity.)

Challenge 4: “Negotiate Success,” is another challenge that is essential in almost any situation. Ultimately, your boss is the main person who will be evaluating your team and your individual performance, which are directly tied. So establishing criteria and tangible objectives with your new boss is essential. Also, keep in mind that these goals may have been set for you by your predecessor, but as part of Challenge 3, you must evaluate these objectives and determine if they are still realistic given the transition period required for the change in leadership, this and other factors which your predecessor might not have taken into consideration.

Leaders in Transition Additional Time Spent
Communicating 64.7%
Planning 60.8%
Building A Team 60.0%
Strategy 58.2%
Influencing 57.1%

As seen in table to the left from Paese and Wellins - "Leaders In Transition: Step Up or Step Off" of Development Dimensions International [2], communication and planning consume vast amounts of time from transitioning leaders. In a study performed by Evolta [3] , 60 –65 % of all transitioners make their transition without special support from transition-based help firms. Often due to the fact that it takes transitioners 6 - 9 months to become fully effective and efficient in their new positions, a startling 35 - 40% of transitioning leaders fail.

Although the change in leadership of a project team requires a period of transition for everyone involved, the transitioning leader has many tools available to make the journey as pain free as possible. Following proven strategies for smoother transitions and possibly seeking the advice of leadership transition training by companies like Evolta, transitioning leaders can not only reduce the time involved, but also increase their likelihood of success.


This chapter focuses on how to manage the transition from team member to team leader, when working in a team-based organization. With the reality that "internally sourced leaders are failing 33% of the time" and "very few leaders feel that organizations are doing the right things to prepare their future leaders" (Paese and Wellins), the pressure on transitioning leaders seems insurmountable. Although the mountain is high, a key aspect of a successful transition is an effective strategy.

The importance of a successful transition not only lies with the leader, but also with the future performance of the entire team. The psychological impacts of the transitional period may include role conflicts and the animosity and personal doubt of other "passed over" teammates. Stress and impaired functionality are often negative outcomes that commonly arise from role conflict and often the best way to overcome such role conflict is to simply relinquish the prior teammate role and frame the leadership role as a definitive new challenge. Once the new leader has successfully changed his/her perception from team member to leader, the leader must establish influence over the team. Although this may be extremely difficult at times and require the entire team to overcome strong social biases, the results of a meaningful and challenging work environment are well worth the effort. One of the best ways to influence a team is through a combination of leveraging knowledge, expertise and "liking" to focus the team around a common set of goals. This combination of techniques not only establishes the leader’s credibility within the team, but it also primes the group to visualize accomplishing future goals under such leadership. Finally, even with extensive training and a thorough understanding of the social biases that may be present during your transition, it is the actions of the leader that matter most. We discussed topics like how to "promote yourself", "match strategy to situation" and "negotiate success" as excellent ways to accelerate your transition period. By opening your mind and following some of the aforementioned guidelines for leadership transitions, anyone can successfully transition into a coveted leadership role with confidence and finesse.

Conflict · Leader Credibility



Briles, J. 2004. Changing from Peer to Boss has its Challenges. The Denver Business Journal

Cialdini, R. Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion

Dickey, M. 2002. Tips for Making a Leadership Transition Run Smoothly. The Chronicle of Philanthopy

J., G. 2004. Training: Helping People and Business Succeed-Sink or Swim. Training Magazine

Mittelmark, M. 1999. Social ties and health promotion: Suggestions for population-based research. Oxford University Press

Monaco, L. 2004. What changes when you're the boss?. Business Training Library

Perets, A. 2002. Who's the boss? Tips for managing friends and former peers. Tech Republic

Sotiriou and Wittmer, Influence Methods of Project Managers: Perceptions of Team Members and Project Managers

Watkins, M. The First 90 Days: Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels

Wellins, R. Leaders in Transition: Stepping Up, Not Off" Matt Paese