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3 Key Leadership Lessons from White House

Communications Director, Anthony Scaramucci: How to Lead a Low Trust Team

by Phyllis Reagin, Executive Coach & Organizational Effectiveness Expert, CSRH Consulting, LLC

Anthony Scaramucci recently assumed the helm of the White House Communications team, a team that is perceived to be mired in low trust, suspicion, and disloyalty. Scaramucci began his tenure with a firm warning to his new team, “I’m going to fire everybody, that’s how I’m going to do it.” He also stated, “You’re either going to stop leaking or you’re going to be fired.” His messaging was clear and focused about rooting out people and behaviors that are disruptive.

By mid-week, a staffer he mistrusted, Michael Short, was informed via the media that he would be fired. Short resigned that day. Scaramucci appeared to be positioning for the right authoritative message and optics to signal that he is in control of the situation. By the end of the week, however, Scaramucci’s financial document was released to the public via the Public Disclosure Act. That occurrence points distinctly to a team’s defiance and deep disregard for Scaramucci’s stated intention of increasing loyalty. As of today, Scaramucci has made it public that chief of staff, Reince Priebus, is a nemesis. Whatever Scaramucci’s leadership vision may be it is now lost with the distraction of negative words.

What could make Scaramucci more effective during this transition with a low trust team? Leaders often are asked to lead teams that they did not hire. This approach to assuming a team is challenging since loyalty to their leadership and ideas is often in question. Even more challenging is inheriting a team that is embroiled in negativity. What role can a leader play that will redirect the team and right the ship?

The first leadership key is for leaders to speak positively about their vision for their team’s work and why it matters. They must be sure to state what they want from the team and minimize messaging on what they do not want. The idea here is to engage the team. A focus on the bigger picture of the work can inspire and motivate the team. During this time, a leader should deliver clear and succinct messages about how they will lead and the roles that others can play in bringing the vision to life. This message will help the team to understand the new leader and how they can support her.

The second leadership key is to provide your new team with clear expectations for their work and behaviors. In overall team meetings and smaller meetings, leaders need to consistently convey what they expect from others and the outcomes they want. This can include team behaviors such as, “All outside communication will go through the following channels…” Leaders cannot assume that their team knows the rules and guidelines. Leaders must remember to provide positive feedback to those individuals who are meeting these expectations.

The third leadership key is for the leader to assess from an unemotional perspective who is adding value to the team and work and who is misaligned. This is the time for the leader to slow down, assess the environment, challenge his perceptions, and ask good questions about why certain behaviors are occurring on the team and what is needed to make a shift. For those determined to be a negative factor, the leader needs to ask what can make a positive difference. Do they need further clarification? Is the leader’s intention understood and believed?

There is still an opportunity to realign negative team members. If after this careful approach a leader finds that a team member is not a good fit then the path to exiting them can be carried out with confidence and in a manner that signals to the other team members that the leader is thoughtful and objective.

There are occasions that a quick decision needs to be made when a team member is so misaligned with the leader’s objectives that dismissal is the most effective route. Here too, leaders can demonstrate a thoughtful approach by not engaging in nonessential negative conversations about the individual. It is important to remember that other team members may have experienced this individual as negative but when perceiving the new leader as a threat they will align to that team member nonetheless. The leader needs to let the team member go and then move quickly to focusing on working constructively with the remaining team members.

Anthony Scaramucci appears to be at war with his team with a “us vs. them” messaging. He has firmly conveyed to them that they are the enemy. He did not provide a clear path for what being on the team needs to look like and certainly does not have an inspirational message. Scaramucci missed the opportunity to immediately discuss how he values his new team and what an exciting opportunity they all have ahead.

Leaders inheriting a low trust team can effectively create a collaborative and motivated team. The best leaders remember to focus on their leadership vision, why the work matters, are clear about their expectations, and demonstrate that they value their team.

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