Leaders are fundamental to workplace culture and environment: they are the driving force of an organisation towards its goals and are the key to motivating followers and enabling change.
Whether the new leader is internal or external, any alteration in leadership can be unsettling for staff as the leader considers, and potentially changes, central aspects that contribute to the team’s overall effectiveness.
This turbulent period will usually be short term and lessen as the new leader and team acclimatise. But what if the leader is only an interim leader, brought in to cover staff departure or absence, or an internal candidate acting in the role until a replacement can be found?
We look at the issues surrounding interim leaders.
A leadership paradox
The first issue is perhaps the most fundamental and asks whether interim leadership presents a leadership paradox.
Academics Bruns and Rüdiger frame interim leadership well, asserting that it means producing management resources Just In Time and just for a limited time, whilst outlining the business reasons for needing short term managers, namely flexibility and efficiency.
And then they outline exactly what you need to be a great leader which they state is both intensive knowledge of the company and being embedded completely in its network.
Thus, and presumably here we are talking about external leaders newly arriving to a company with little knowledge and no established networks, interim leadership could present a paradox.
Yet the study showed that as long as the tasks set for the interim leader are measurable and don’t require intensive firm-specific or strategic resources (which would align better with permanent leaders) there was no paradox.
The psychological contract
Assuming then that the tasks set for the interim manager are appropriate considering the short-term nature of their position, the second issue would perhaps be the interim leader’s motivation and how committed or otherwise they are to the role. Intrinsically, you may expect that temporary or interim leaders to have less invested in the position.
Management academics McDonald and Makin discuss the topic of the psychological contract and how this can vary with temporary staff, outlining that the psychological contract is the unwritten expectations that come with a job outside of the contract or tasks set out.
And intertwined with the psychological contract are the ‘promissory’ obligations from the employer and ‘reciprocal’ obligations from the interim employee based upon what they infer the organisation has done for them.
Commitment- higher or lower?
Furthermore, they cite Rousseau and his idea of transactional and relational contracts, stating that temporary staff will be more attuned to the transactional or economic aspects of the psychological contract like willingness to work overtime whilst relational aspects like loyalty build over time.
This is in direct contrast to the findings of McDonald and Makin who found no significant difference in the psychological contract overall, or in either the transactional or relational elements for temporary staff. In fact, in the area of affective commitment, or identification with the organisation, the temporary staff members demonstrated higher levels than permanent staff.
This is attributed to a sociological phenomenon called anticipatory socialisation which can be simplified to the temporary leader being an outsider and wanting to become an insider.
Dealing with baggage
We can immediately see how complicated the issue of psychological contract is. Difficulties can arise when an interim leader is taking the place of an employee whose psychological contract is high in relational obligations, and where the interim leader is primarily focused on the transactional elements or not attuned to the psychological contract at all.
This can quickly lead to discontent and hostility with existing team members as they struggle to reconcile what happened in the past and how they were led with what is happening in the present.
Alternatively, the interim leader may be following on from a leader with little vested in the psychological contract and attempting to motivate and encourage their team but without the permanence of a long term position
Respect and admiration
We have seen that when tasks are clear, leading in the interim in no barrier to effectiveness. Temporary status does not automatically dictate that a lack of motivation, especially if the interim leader has respect and admiration for the organisation.
What is also clear though is that it is extremely important for the organisation to manage and support the interim leader, fulfil promissory obligations and not break the psychological contract, which in turn will ensure that the interim leader is as effective as is possible to be in their position.