Companies & Industries

How Not to Be the Obnoxious Newcomer


Sure, you have great ideas for your new workplace. But don't be too quick to push them on your new colleagues

Starting a new job shows up on charts alongside moving cross-country and having a baby as one of life's more stressful events. It's a great thing to start a position at a new company. You've just been wooed and courted and everyone is happy to see you (ideally). But as you find your way in the organization you're joining, it's easy to view the world through the filter of "How We Did It at My Old Company."

That's a problem, because if there's one way to make yourself unpopular with your new colleagues, it's waltzing into meetings and telling them to change everything they're doing. And who can blame them for bristling? Sure, newcomers and their fresh ideas add vitality to a business, but there's something presumptuous about suggesting changes before you have a chance to learn the culture, the company's history, and a bit more about why things are done the way they are. Hearing the history of the business and your group will also help you bond with the team.

It's difficult, but vitally important, to realize that the people who preceded you into the organization are working as hard as they can on a long list of important projects. As excited as you are to jump into your new assignment and begin slaying dragons, your teammates are probably aware of, and knocking away at, the biggest problems and opportunities the organization faces. They're not, in other words, anywhere near as excited to hear your opinions as you are to offer them.

Observation Over Intervention

And, as you enter a new environment, isn't it critical not only to contribute intellectually, but to add to the team's overall cohesion? Over the long term, people will be more positive about a person who came on board ready to learn and join, than a person who showed up full of wisdom to dispense.

The fact is, your efforts to work well with your new colleagues will result in a much deeper payoff than your first 10 sparkling observations about what's broken in your new shop. And to make you feel better about going slowly with the "what needs fixing" advice, I'll give you this food for thought: Everything you add to the idea pool, from the moment you arrive in your new organization, will go down more smoothly if you've put energy into meshing with the team from the get-go. So as much as you're dying to start righting what's wrong or done poorly in your new environment, slow down and focus on observation rather than intervention.

At first glance, certain elements of your employer's business may make no sense to you at all. But after close inspection and some careful questioning and listening, you may find out that some of them hinge on old ideas that made sense at the time or may have been shaped by office politics. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be improved, it means you have to proceed carefully. Bear in mind there's every chance that someone you're working with may have had an eye on your position, so you must be extra careful.

Keep It to Yourself

On the other hand, it's easy to see how and why you could fall into the trap of seeming like a know-it-all. It's fun to feel like the White Knight, and with your "newcomer's glasses" on, you'll be quick to spot places where your past experience can be useful in moving the company ahead and improving creaky systems.

Your mind may be racing with ideas for moving your new organization forward. It's hard to stay silent when you see so many opportunities for improvement. But you've got to keep your counsel for at least a little while—or get used to being known none too affectionately as "the person who knows more about our business in two weeks than any of us who have been here for 10 years." The time will come for sharing what's not working and how to make it better. In the meantime, join a task force or committee and take notes, or set up meetings, or bring donuts for a while before attempting to call the shots.

There's no doubt that every organization has a few best practices to share. As the new kid on the block, you can share what you've learned elsewhere and make a real contribution to your new employer's operations. But if you lend that expertise in such a way that people roll their eyes and drift away when you enter a conversation, you're not helping anyone—even worse, you're setting yourself up to have negative credibility with your peers.

And just as some solutions will work, remember that others won't, so don't be a cookie-cutter manager (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/12/06, "Stamping Out Cookie-Cutter Managers") who assumes that what worked at Company A will be perfect for Company B.

As you establish yourself in your new workplace, there are ways to give input that will endear you to your workmates, and there are ways that will have them wish you'd go back to whatever company you came from. Don't let yourself be the newcomer whose every sentence begins with "Back at XYZ Corp.…"! There will be plenty of opportunity down the road to get your suggestions heard—and implemented.

See BusinessWeek's slide show for 10 tips that will help you give input that's appreciated, not resented.

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive. She can be reached at liz@asklizryan.com.

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