Ogg, the Cro-Magnon design engineer, sat in a meeting wondering what to do. He had just been transferred to the Mammoth Whacker VI project, which was already halfway complete, when one of the former design engineers was lost during field trials. What should he do? Everyone in the room knew more about the project than he did. Plus, he had no idea how the team actually worked. Ogg decided that he could learn more by listening and trying to get a feel for the lay of the land. Later on he would try to cautiously point out something particularly insightful to prove his worth to the group.
Ogg's behavior is quite typical of any person joining a group late. All of us intuitively recognize that a pre-existing group has developed norms, what psychologists call the unwritten rules of a group. Rather than clumsily violating these rules, we cautiously try to decode them from the behaviors that we observe.
Additionally, team members present at the original formation of a group have inherently higher status than those who join later. Because high status within a group leads to privileges, we try to gain stature within the existing group. Psychologists call this process of assimilating a new member into a group "socialization."
Rapid socialization is inherently good for new team members because it will enable them to more quickly contribute to the team. It also prevents them from being alienated from the group. Unfortunately, socialization in most organizations takes more time than it should. That's because there's no conscious effort to integrate the new team member systematically. But, there are a number of important things that we can do to accelerate the socialization process.
First, ensure that the new members are quickly marked as team members. Most groups mark their members with artifacts such as T-shirts and coffee cups. New members feel that they belong to a group when they look the same as the pre-existing team members.
Also, make sure that new team members have contact with a broad cross section of the organization. It's particularly important that they are introduced to team members of high stature. A simple way to do this is by scheduling a series of one-on-one lunches between new team members and management.
Quickly assign new members a meaningful role. People feel best when they know that they're contributing. Furthermore, other team members will like new members who pull their own weight. This creates better interpersonal relationships.
Whenever possible, document your procedures and decisions. Instead of forcing new members to decode rules by trial and error, it helps to have some written down. A key reason why the military can incorporate new members so quickly into its culture is the existence of well-documented procedures.
Additionally, assign a sponsor to any new team member, too. It's most effective if a single individual is responsible for integrating a new member into the group. Making everybody responsible dilutes responsibility too much.
Finally, frequently provide new members with feedback. Nobody wants to be kept in suspense for 12 months to find out whether or not he or she is contributing.
Through good management you can accelerate the speed with which new members become productive members of your team.