Whether you call it the "Great Resignation" or something else, most of us are seeing a lot of movement in our workplaces. The topic comes up at least a handful of times each week in my conversations with clients. Transitions can bring with them certain dynamics, some of which can be difficult to navigate.
If you are a leader, you may be onboarding new people into critical roles on your team. Or, you might find the seat next to you at the conference room table, once occupied by a familiar longtime co-worker, now holds a stranger. It's really quite remarkable, like an arranged marriage of sorts. There is no courtship. You meet one another and get right to work. ("This is Jeff. You'll now be spending more of your time with him than your own wife and children. We expect the two of you to get the department on the right track." or "Meet Emily. The two of you will be managing the multi-million dollar project budget for our new client. You start today.")
When new team members are brought on board without sufficient forethought and care, we can run into unmet performance expectations, messy interpersonal dynamics, or even repeat turnover. Below are a few things to consider as you aim to set new team members up for success and support team cohesion.
Take the time to build a relational foundation.
A few weeks ago, a friend was telling me about an experience where he had reacted to a situation without understanding the full picture. He had been visibly frustrated with a cashier for messing up his order. On his way out, he happened to catch a glimpse of her crying to a co-worker and he overheard their conversation about her husband's poor health. Learning more about her human experiences instantly allowed him to feel more empathy, care, and grace toward her. Most of us have had similar experiences. When we don't know anything about another person, it's easy to see them in a very narrow light. Just as the cashier became only "the person who can't seem to get orders right" to my friend, our co-workers can become "the guy who showed up late to our meeting" or "the woman who included an error in the data report." We don't fully see them. Workplace relationships can make or break the process of onboarding someone new. The goal is not to force team members to become best friends. That will either happen or it won't and it's not your job to play matchmaker and create the next office girl gang or bromance. The goal is to create a healthy and functional community where team members see one another as human beings with talents, struggles, quirks, and full lives outside of work. When forming a new team, or bringing new faces into an existing team, provide opportunities to get to know one another. Know your group and pick something that seems to fit. Maybe you open quarterly planning meetings by sharing fun family/pet/hobby photos or enjoy lunch together on occasion. Perhaps you celebrate birthdays, engagements, and kids' graduations. Do whatever you can to create a relational foundation. That foundation will make every challenge and mistake easier to navigate and it will make every success more fun to celebrate!
Ask for input and customize the onboarding experience.
I love a good plan. I tend to map out as many details as possible when creating an employee development program or an onboarding plan. However, I've learned that even the best plans need to leave plenty of wiggle room for individuality. Each new hire will bring with them a unique set of needs. What comes easy to one will be a struggle for another - and vice versa. When onboarding a new team member, ask for their input. You may be starting from scratch getting to know your new colleague, but you can leverage what they know about themselves. Instead of prescribing every detail of the onboarding experience, ask for their ideas on how to make the process a smooth one. While you'll have certain aspects of onboarding that do need to remain consistent (looking at you, HR training), there is also a lot of room for creating an experience that meets the individual where they are at. What does this sound like in practice? Ask lots of questions. What resources would help flatten the learning curve as they settle in? Would they appreciate a peer mentor, or would they prefer more autonomy? What questions still feel unanswered after initial onboarding meetings?
Keep asking questions and checking in regularly so you can pivot together, based on their growth progress and emerging challenges.
Take the longview. Equip for resourcefulness and sustainability.
At some point, the honeymoon phase will be over. While we should all remain in a posture of continual learning, the initial onboarding into a role should culminate with a high-functioning employee who is no longer as green as they once were.
New hires will have lots of questions. Questions are gold. Questions should be encouraged, as they'll ultimately accelerate progress. Questions shine a light on training oversights and gaps in understanding. With every question, and the dialogue that follows it, you and your new teammate build greater consensus and cohesion.
However, over the long haul, some can begin to use questions as a crutch. This can create inefficiencies and kill their confidence in their own problem-solving skills. ("I probably don't have this right. I'll go ask Jan. She always has the answers.") Worse yet, some managers or seasoned employees let their egos get in the way. They crave questions and become dependent on them as a signal of their value. ("It's a good thing I was here to rescue Tim with my brilliant answer. What would this place do without me?")
To be clear, there will always be times to ask questions and times to provide answers, but an endless cycle of "ask and tell" isn't the end goal. There are things you can do during the first few weeks and months to set a new team member up well. Below are a few ideas. Some of these will take a little extra time upfront, but will save you loads of time later!
Provide job aides or reference guides for complex or tedious tasks.
Send a recap email after a meeting where you walk through a lot of new information.
If you are asked a question you think they might know but are simply lacking confidence in, ask them to share their ideas and then provide feedback instead of spoon-feeding them your own answer. ("I'm happy to help. First, tell me what you'd do. I bet you have some great ideas!")
If you are asked a question that is answered in resources, kindly point them to the resource in a way that facilitates resourcefulness but doesn't discourage all future questions. ("Happy to help! We actually have a handbook that outlines this. Here's where you'll find it, for future reference.")
Provide clear expectations for their exact role.
This one is pretty straightforward, but it needs to be said. Employees want to be successful. An employee's core responsibilities and targets should be abundantly clear to them, preferably in writing. If you hear questions of "Is XYZ my job or Kori's?" or "What is my role in XYZ?" you may need to pause and have an alignment conversation.
Grant permission and openly share visions and curiosities.
This is somewhat related to expectations. In areas where a new hire is expected to create something new or overhaul the old way of doing things, make that clear. New hires are more hesitant than existing employees while they learn the lay of the land. They often won't want to overstep or look like the new person taking a red pen to everything. If the expectation is that they create a brand new vision and bring it to life, make that clear. ("We are excited to have you on board! We aren't going to tell you to run this program like it has been run in the past. We want you to breathe new life into it, so please start from scratch and put your own stamp on it!") Be available to support and collaborate, but ensure they feel your support in making changes - even as a new person.
Care for the full team.
I remember bringing our third child home from the hospital. The adjustment was perhaps more jarring for his older brothers than it was for him! Our new baby mostly slept and ate, while there were frequent tantrums from others in the home. "Who is this new baby and what is he doing to our family rhythms!?" they seemed to wonder. We had really hit our stride as a family of four, only to have that completely disrupted with the addition of a tiny little person.
Not to compare our professional colleagues to toddlers and infants... but the analogy just works!
While much of this article has focused on the new hire, be sure you are mindful of the team as a whole. Bringing somebody new into the fold is an adjustment for all. Check on your people. Coach toward collaboration and care as the team is disrupted and settles into a new way of working.
Onboarding is a complex process. Because it's a human scenario, it won't look the same in every situation. While I've had the opportunity to see a lot, I'm continually reminded that we have never "seen it all" when it comes to leading people. Consider the above tips and don't hesitate to reach out if you'd like to discuss your team's situation more specifically. I'm in your corner!