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Leader Swap
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 05/16/2016

Prison guard tower The following is an installment in "The Bouchard 101", a series featuring "Ice Breaker's" designed to promote training awareness and capabilities in the corrections industry.

The following is a tactic that can be used in many team exercises. This illustrates the dynamics that arise from a change in leadership.

It has been said that if one cuts off the head, the body will follow. But what happens when the heads are replaced? Banish all thoughts of Frankenstein and cranial transplants. Leadership changes all of the time in corrections.

Of course, this does not mean that change is always easy. It becomes more difficult when the team and the leader are moved from their zones of comfort.

Imagine that you work in optimal circumstances. Your co-workers support you, understand your strengths and weaknesses, and you know the dynamics in your area.

You are abruptly awakened from this idyllic scene and placed in a new setting with new people. It becomes more challenging. You realize that you are now leading people who hold their former supervisor in very high regard. They resent a new leader and your appearance is an intrusion.

This will be an uphill battle. How can you step into the capable shoes of your predecessor and lead the team into continued success?

Changing leaders just as a team coalesces often brings many interesting dynamics. I discovered this at the 2007 International Association of Correctional Training Personnel conference in Charleston, West Virginia. I was facilitating a course on classroom exercises for contraband control modules.

The particular exercise was “Contraband Corner” (from “Icebreaker 101”, page 22-25). The object was to distribute “shank material” and allow the teams to make weapons. The class had to be divided into four teams. I chose four captains and placed each of them in one of the four corners of the room. The captains that I chose seemed to be the most extroverted members of the class.

The four captains selected team members in turn. As the teams filled out, the more boisterous of the team leaders taunted some other colleagues on opposing teams. The teams ended up with roughly the same members as were on previous teams. Left to themselves, the captains selected those with whom they had previously worked and with those that they were comfortable.

As the harassment continued, it seemed that this was done in the great spirit of rough verbal camaraderie that is common in corrections. Also, this class was comprised of seasoned correctional trainers. They knew how to have fun and how to engage in “fun” demoralization of opponents.

“If only I could send the captain of team number one to team number two”, I thought. She would be pulled from her zone of comfort and would be forced to work with someone who she openly insulted. And that person had reciprocated. It seemed that it would be interesting to watch. Then I realized as the facilitator, it was my duty to mix things up.

In a loud, steady tone of voice, I issued two orders. “Attention team captains! You will now face the center of the room. You are being reassigned. Move to the team on your left.”

Stunned silence met the echoes of my words. What followed were protests, invectives and grim laughter. I had succeeded in mixing the adversaries. Now I wondered how well they would work together. In this instance, the results were amazing. Pseudo enemies became cooperative. Old enmities were forgotten. The teams, already set in a competitive mode, forged new ties.

In the postmortem, it seems that many of the participants realized this. Some stated that the goal of the exercise – to make a weapon out of trash – was more important than ego. This lead to creativity through positive tension.

I have since used the tactic of leader-swap at other conferences and in college courses. I have found that the above results will not always follow. For example, a quiet group with no overt leader or antagonists will not always coalesce. Yet, it is a supreme opportunity to study the dynamics of people thrust into teams that they did not build.

Of course, this was just a classroom exercise. In the real world would this have worked as well?

It is common for a supervisor to be assigned to a new team. This could occur through a promotion or reassignment. And it is not always a comfortable fit.

Here are some thoughts on how to smooth the transition of a team in flux:
  • Realize that the cooperation goes in two directions – from the leader to team members and vice versa.
  • Leaders have to be flexible and able to apply different styles to various circumstances and work personas.
  • Change is not always welcome and a period of transition may be rocky, at best. This is, however, a time to learn for all involved.
  • We are not always placed in the team that we would prefer. Yet, awareness of a tangible goal tends to smooth the transition.
  • Acknowledgement of how things were in previous teams can be helpful, if the leader is insightful. This helps the team move on and to assess strengths and weaknesses.
  • No one would really grow as a professional without some contention.
Being reassigned to a new team is never easy. This is particularly true if you come from a dream team. Nevertheless, with the common goal of safety and security for all highlighted, the flexible leader can march with the team into success. The public and staff depend on this.

Joe Bouchard is a Librarian employed with the Michigan Department of Corrections and a collaborator with The International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP). He is also the author of “IACTP’s Corrections Icebreakers: The Bouchard 101, 2014”. The installments in this series include his opinions. The agency for which he works is not in any way responsible for the content or accuracy of this material, and the views are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the agency. While some material is influenced by other works, all of the icebreakers have been developed by Joe Bouchard.

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

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