What we should never say to a new hire

What we should never say to a new hire

A relatively new team member (let’s call her Taylor) caught me out of the blue and said “Hey Blake, thank you.”

For what?” I asked Taylor, with a confused face.

For telling me that you don’t expect anything of me on my first day.”

Turns out, Taylor was at a leadership conference and one of the sessions focused on imposter syndrome. The session described how feeling like an imposter starts when we perceive what is expected of us to be more than what we think we can deliver. For example, we may feel like an imposter when we’re expected to cook Thanksgiving dinner when we can barely make a salad.

By communicating that I expected nothing from Taylor on day one, it eliminated any potential for imposter syndrome to develop. In turn, most team members are quite confident in their roles.

I wasn’t always this clear with new team members. Quite the opposite actually. I used to get so excited about finding someone that was a good fit that I expected them to solve all my problems right away. It didn’t help that we hired really smart, hard working, and ambitious people.

I’d often delegate work that required knowledge that nobody outside the company would have, and a lot of it. I would also fail to clarify whether they should be getting help on certain topics. New team members would then spend many more hours than veterans in the office, trying to make sense of the tasks by themselves. They thought that they were expected to do everything on their own, and that this was a test of their abilities. Most were too intimidated to ask questions.

While all team members successfully ramped up by themselves (speaks to their intellect and resilience), it wasn’t without stress. In 360 reviews, team members would communicate that I was demanding, intimidating, and impatient. Not traits that I want to be associated with when I’m trying to build long-lasting, transparent, and trusting relationships.

My goal has always been to create an environment where people feel comfortable asking questions and sharing their thoughts, so this was definitely a problem. What led to this?

In retrospect, these feelings likely started to develop from things I’d say to team members in their early days on the job, such as:

  • I saw that you’re working on a request for client X. They’re really important to us. I know that you will wow them.
  • So and so is dealing with a pretty tough request, can you help them since you have experience in Y?
  • I can’t wait to see the results from your work on project Z tomorrow. A lot of people are waiting on it.

What do these sayings have in common? They assume that the individual can independently complete the task with flying colors, and set the expectation that they are fully responsible for its success. Wouldn’t anyone be intimidated by these words, let alone new hires?

Fact is, even if new team members have performed similar tasks before, they’re now in a new organization that requires new knowledge and skills. Every workplace have unique processes, culture, and people that make them different from other workplaces. It’s thus unreasonable to expect anyone to be able to run at full speed without a ramp up period.

Let’s also remember that for some people, it’s their first time working with a start-up team. It’s their first time coping with an unstructured and chaotic environment. It’s thus our job as leaders to ease them into it.

The only thing we can expect of new team members is for them to ask a ton of questions. We need them to avoid making assumptions, and to never fear speaking up.

Based on the questions asked, and the speed at which they learn the job, it also gives us an opportunity to diagnose the type of coaching that they need.

So instead of saying “I know that you have experience with X, can you help…,” it’s much more fair to simply ask “What’s your experience with X? Could you tell me more about it?”

What does success look like? Success translates into a new hire that has the confidence to attack challenges we throw at them without feeling like an imposter. They should know that as a team, we help each other and face challenges together.

I don’t expect anything from you, except that you ask a ton of questions.

Related reading: Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges


Recommended exercise

Let’s include a new step on orientation checklist for new hires: Communicate that we expect nothing from them, simply that they become the best students ever and ask a ton of questions.


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