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, just after 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 criticized the team and the leader, claiming they had provided little guidance to get them up to speed. The two complained they weren’t given clear tasks or role descriptions, and that they lacked access to information the senior members had but didn’t share. In short, they said, they were left to flounder.
The team members were dumbfounded, and had a completely different story. They liked the new members a lot, and had strove to be welcoming and helpful. One of them said, repeatedly and from day one, “My door is always open. Don’t even knock. Anything you need, any question you have, just come on in.” He was not just surprised, but actually hurt by the feedback.
So, who’s telling the truth: the former employees or their supervisors? They both are.
We view the truth through different lenses, depending on our position. The new recruits saw through the “outsider” or “newcomer” lens. The established team members, meanwhile, were wearing a high-rank set of “insider” or “old guard” lenses.
As a leadership consultant and coach, I deal with power dynamics all day long. One of the least discussed and most difficult set of power relations comes from insider-outsider dynamics. These dynamics are often based in seniority—in this case, the difference in status between rookies and veterans. But the same issues can just as easily crop up because of popularity, age, or social grouping.
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. How things feel on a day-to-day basis often comes down to the small, yet significant ways people treat each other, especially across power divides.
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 tag. According to 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.
How we treat newcomers is fundamental to their success. And ours as well. If we want people to contribute they need to feel welcomed and included. This isn’t just a workplace problem, but is true for all kinds of groups: communities, school, churches, organizations, clubs, and associations.
Back to my story. Why wasn’t that “open door” enough? Because, for those not yet comfortable in a new role, it isn’t open. The onus to “knock on the door”—to act—is on the lower-ranking 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 just downright 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. You don’t know what you are permitted to say, what nets you praise and what gets you in trouble. When you have the home-court advantage, proper use of power means taking care to make sure others are as informed as you are, so that they can participate to their fullest.
In this particular case, it was a matter of benign neglect. Sometimes, however, insider–outsider dynamics are more deliberate, even hostile. People will protect their old guard status at all costs. When status is related to the status quo, one way to defend your position is to resist change. Feeling threatened by newcomers, you may hoard knowledge to make others dependent on you. You may ignore others’ needs for support as they adjust to their new roles in an unfamiliar department or organization. After all, the thought goes, you have “paid your dues”—why shouldn’t others have to do the same?
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. Sometimes the difficulty exposing what they don’t know 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 a brand new person be expected to do so?
Have a formal—and long—onboarding or welcoming process.
This seems obvious, but most organizations lack an onboarding process. 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 influence on your team, as well as in your relationship with the new recruit or member. And make this process longer than you think necessary. Pair people up with “buddies,” 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, or 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, an 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 more you don’t 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 identify 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.