The new person, “Phil,” strides into the conference room confident he has an idea to improve the last sales quarter for the company. Phil was brought in to turn things around; he conducted research and even used this strategy on a similar product with his last company. His presentation goes smoothly; at the conclusion, he sits down waiting for the buzz of excitement and input from others on how to ramp up the strategy. Instead, there is silence. Finally someone speaks up and says, “Phil, that’s some plan you have put together, but I don’t know that it will work here. Our product and sales strategy are a bit different.” Phil thinks, “What sales? We are below where we need to be,” but he smiles and listens as the group re-pitches the same tired strategy dressed up in new Emperor’s clothes. Suddenly, one of the long-time employees says, “Wait, what if we…” and begins to spell out a near replica of Phil’s strategy. Suddenly people are engaged and say, “Yes, this is good. This could work.” For a second, Phil wonders if he is on some kind of hidden camera show.
He JUST presented that idea, and no one responded. Why?
Resistance to the Newcomer
Recent studies have concluded that unwarranted hostility and even rejection exists towards newcomers in group settings. Even when ideas are rock solid, newcomers will tend to face stonewalling. A study by Hornsey and team reveal not only the bias against new team members but also ways the new person can generate influence (Hornsey et al., 2007).
The Study’s Methodology
In the study, Hornsey asked 187 health professionals to make judgments about the soundness of critiques. Group A thought the critiques were coming from someone who had been on the team only three weeks. Group B believed the critiques were coming from an 18-year veteran on the team. In each case, the criticisms presented to participants were identical; the only difference was the apparent source of a new team member vs. a veteran team member.
Group A showed a marked aversion to the critiques coming from the new team member. Group B accepted the identical critiques as highly valid. The newcomer’s critique was deemed less constructive, and there was measured disagreement and negative feedback as compared to the veteran’s critique.
This study doesn’t doom the newcomer to a role of no influence. It was designed to see if there was a way to reduce this resistance, so they devised a second part to the experiment.
How Newcomers Can Generate Influence
The researchers desired to see whether a newcomer’s influence and critique could be more acceptable to existing groups. In part two of the study, 217 members of an online gaming community, who were interested in a particular game, were recruited. The specific online game was complex requiring layers of strategy, relationships, and not easily learned. Each participant was shown an identical critique taken from a chat site these gamers frequented for insight and strategy. The critique was critical of some aspects of their game, and the 217 participants were asked to comment on whether they perceived the critique as valid or invalid. (Keep in mind, there is a degree of passion that runs deep in this particular gaming community).
To test whether the bias against newcomers could be lessened, the source providing the identical critique was presented in 4 different ways.
- A newcomer who distances himself from another group to which he used to belong.
- A newcomer who embraces another group to which he used to belong.
- A veteran player who distances himself from another group to which he used to belong.
- A veteran of the group who embraces another group to which he used to belong.
The key variants are time involved in the existing group, and the relationship with a rival group of gamers who assembled in a different chat room.
The results of the first part of the study were again confirmed, as the gaming community members disliked the critiques arising from the newcomer. Feedback from the newcomer generated more negativity than veterans despite the content of their message being identical. But the second part of the study revealed a way in which newcomers COULD better gain influence.
If the newcomer showed dislike and distance from the previous group to which he or she belonged, thecritique received more positive acceptance. Additionally, the veterans received a bump up in positive acceptance as well when this strategy was incorporated.
The old adage, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” appears to hold weight. Of course, we aren’t talking true enemies at war here but rather rivals, competitors or those perceived as different then “my group.”
Why Does This Happen?
There is no exact answer, but the study reveals that people tend to want others to value their team as much as they do. When newcomers distance themselves from a previous group, this disassociation strengthens the perception that the newcomer desires to become an integral part of his/her new team.
I have a friend who worked on a team in which one of the new executives would always say, “Back when I worked at Company A, we would solve this by…” My friend said all the team members continually thought, “If you were such an influencer there, why did you leave and come here to attempt to import their ways upon our team?” They would even joke and say, “Back when I was at…” when the new executive wasn’t present.
Consider how a newcomer’s identity is perceived by existing team members. We all want others to value our group as much as we do. When newcomers distance themselves from their previous group, it raises the perception they are more committed to their new group. If critique must come from this new member, at least the existing members don’t question their loyalty as much.
Celebrate First, Then Critique
Additionally, the study reveals that a newcomer who wants to influence change does face challenges. Agents of change commonly face increased negativity and outright rejection early on. However strategically the change is packaged, people tend to see every suggested change as an insult to the past. They hear each critique as, “You weren’t doing this right.”
When we are brought into a new team, we often feel the need to make big changes to justify our position on the team. Thus, newcomers often make the mistake of bringing critical perceptions and radically new ideas upon their arrival in order to “make a big splash.” This actually increases resistance to their influence. Instead, record the needed changes, but don’t state them. There will be a proper time for sharing them, as you’ll see below.
Newcomers may feel that criticizing their previous team helps show allegiance to the new team. This will actually decrease their perceived loyalty since criticizing their previous group incessantly may create the perception that they are willing to stab this new team in the back, too, as soon as they move to the next team or organization.
So how can a newcomer successfully disassociate from his/her previous group?
Celebrate the New Group
The first few months you are on the new team, resist the temptation to initiate radical change. Instead, find what the team does well - every team does something well - and celebrate it.
Here are some examples of positive statements to say to your new group:
- You treat one another with great respect during a meeting, even when you disagree.
- This is a great system for tracking inventory. The team did a great job selecting this software.
- We have a solid foundation here, which is fantastic.
When you state such positive observations, team members feel like many things are right with the team, its systems and processes. Each celebration also subtly says, “My previous team didn’t have this particular quality,” without saying anything negative about the previous team.
Typically after 2-3 months of celebration observations, you will have earned the new group’s trust and may start the dialogue on needed changes.
Therefore, newcomer - start celebrating!