Several years ago I coached a leader and her team. They had hired two new team members and thought everything was going well. The new hires had great skills and good attitudes; they were easy to get along with and seemed to gel with the organizational culture.
Yet, after just nine months, within two weeks of each other, they quit.
The leader and her team were blindsided, but it was the feedback these hires had given to HR in their exit interviews that had the organization turn to me for help.
Both of the former employees complained that the team, and their leader, provided little guidance to get them up to speed. They expressed that they weren’t given clear responsibilities or role descriptions and that they lacked access to crucial information. In short, they said, they were left to flounder.
The team members were dumbfounded. They had a completely different story. They liked the new members a lot and had strived to be welcoming and helpful.
One had even informed the new hires, repeatedly and from day one, that “my door is always open. Don’t even knock. Anything you need, any question you have, just come on in.”
So, who was telling the truth: the former employees or their supervisors?
They both were.
We view the truth through different lenses, depending on our position. The new recruits saw through the “outsider” or “newcomer” lens, while the established team members, meanwhile, saw the situation through an “insider” or “veteran” lens.
One of the least discussed and most difficult sets of power relations comes from insider-outsider dynamics, often based, as in the case above, on seniority, or the difference in status between rookies and veterans.
Insider-outsider dynamics may seem like something we left behind on the playground, but they are a vital—and often invisible—part of organizational culture. What’s more, they play a huge role in employee retention and engagement.
Consider the onboarding process, as exemplified above. New recruits do not automatically become integrated into an organization. In fact, it’s a complex process requiring thought, planning, and strategic direction. And when onboarding fails, there’s a huge price to pay.
According to this report on onboarding new employees by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), half of all senior outside hires fail within 18 months in a new position, and half of all hourly workers leave within the first 120 days on the job.
In other words, hiring is risky business, and onboarding is of critical importance.
Back to my story. The new hires had been told (explicitly) that the door was always open, but why wasn’t that “open door” enough?
Because, for those not yet comfortable in a new role, the open door is not really open. The onus to “knock on the door”—to act—is on the recruit, the one with the least amount of power in the situation.
What the senior team member failed to understand is that every time newcomers have to ask a question, they risk exposing themselves as incompetent. The new person is under tremendous pressure to prove themselves. Even if help is offered, if they take too much advantage of that offer, they put themselves at risk of being seen as dense, under-skilled, or even annoying.
“Knock on my door anytime” is a generous offer to someone who feels at home, empowered, and accepted. But to a complete rookie? Not so much.
The chief power difference between newcomers and veterans is that veterans know—and often set—the “game rules.” When people don’t know or can’t follow the game rules, they can’t play.
That’s why newcomers in a team or group often hang back. When you’re new to a group, you don’t know what’s expected of you. When can I knock? How many times can I knock before I use up my quota? And you don’t have enough experience and knowledge of the business to evaluate your questions: Which questions warrant a knock, and which ones should I just figure out myself?
As long as there are differences between people, there will be power differences, including insider-outsider dynamics. Being the “new kid” is a universal experience.
But, by the same token, there are a few universal ways organizations and leaders can mitigate the feelings of alienation and bridge that gap for newcomers.
Don’t Overestimate the Rank of the Newcomer
No matter how competent, experienced, or confident the newcomer seems, don’t assume they will ask for help or tell you where they are struggling.
Chances are they won’t.
They probably feel intimidated, don’t want to bother you, or feel insecure that others will see them as inept. But hesitation to ask for help can lead to disastrous consequences.
Think about it: if those in your organization with seniority rarely ask for help or openly admit what they don’t know, how can lower status members feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks and voice their concerns?
Managers can remedy this not only by inviting questions or checking in, but also by disclosing what they themselves don’t know. Amy Edmondson’s (1999) study on psychological safety found that high performing medical teams reported more mistakes than their low performing counterparts. When managers acknowledge they don’t have all the answers, admit their mistakes, or simply ask questions, they create an environment where lower status members feel free to speak up and contribute.
Have a Formal—and Long—Onboarding Process.
This may seem obvious, but most organizations lack an onboarding process.
In fact, one-third of companies surveyed spend nothing on onboarding.
Don’t leave it up to the newcomer to learn the ropes. “My door is open” is not a process. Even if you can’t change your company’s policies, you have the power to influence your team, as well as the relationship with the new recruit or member.
And make this process longer than you think necessary. Pair people up with “buddies” who check in periodically. Google is a great case in point. They spend training dollars upfront in recruiting, hiring, and onboarding, knowing that the initial phase of engagement is the most critical to success.
Don’t Let People or Roles Hoard Knowledge.
Organizational knowledge is crucial, but when it sits too long in one person, role, or department, an “old guard” or “siloed” culture develops.
Rotate assignments and promote people laterally into new functions and tasks. Keep people inspired to try new tasks, technologies, and responsibilities.
Rank is best served mixed, not straight.
It’s vital for our continual development to move in and out of beginner roles and the beginner mindset. Rank and seniority can impede learning, as I describe here, in my video.
Know the Invisible Culture and be Able to Explain it
Tayla Bauer, Professor of Management at Portland State University, and organizational dynamics expert, defines 4 “Cs” of successful socialization: compliance, clarification, culture, and connection.
Culture is not just what hangs on the wall, or what’s written in a charter. It includes the invisible phenomena everyone takes for granted. And the more rank you have, the less you see it.
Challenge yourself to see the invisible, and share that knowledge with others: How do people collaborate? How do they speak up, participate in meetings, respond to emails? Who is allowed to ask whom for help?
These subtle dimensions of culture create insider and outsider dynamics. Don’t just talk about the dimensions of culture you’re proud of; share those aspects that you struggle with, that you don’t like, that you find difficult.
Every bright, shining identity casts a shadow; and the brighter the identity shines, the bigger—and darker—the shadow. Which brings us to …
Watch Out for the “Cult” in Culture
I’ve written about this before. Organizational culture is a prized asset, but it can also create clubbiness and exclusion.
Developing cultures is normal human behavior. But cultures always have unanticipated consequences, and one of them is in-group and out-of-group dynamics, along with a tendency to get defensive when anything threatens our sense of identity.
Too often, we project that threat onto newcomers, especially those who may not yet share our way of doing things. Is difference prized? Or, are some differences better than others?
Sometimes we think we’re open to difference because we’ve defined the difference we’re open to, but are unconscious of those differences we don’t even see! Be mindful — not just of how you, and your group, treat difference, but how you define it as well.
These guidelines apply to any integration of outsiders into the group, from onboarding new hires, all the way down to simply bringing guests into your home. Whatever your situation, consider the advantages you have—the advantages you’ve gained—and how you can proactively share them with the people who look to you for welcoming and guidance.
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