How To Solve Onboarding's Awkward Alienation Problem

When you join a new organization and meet new people--onboarding, in the parlance of our times--you can't help but form a new social identity. Can such an experience be made less anxiety-inducing? In a new paper, Harvard Business School prof Francesca Gino and two coauthors say yes. Here's how.

Even if you're a management professor, starting out at a place feels weird. Such was the case for Francesca Gino, who left the Univerisity of North Carolina for Harvard back in 2010.

It's 2010 and Francesca Gino is just about to start teaching at Harvard Business School. She was excited yes, but also "a little anxious" about meeting the standards of her new organization--proof positive that starting at a new place is a heady experience, even if you're a professor of management.

But, being a management scholar, she had an idea of what she might do to alleviate onboarding's anxiety-inducing effects: reflect on her strengths, beyond those of the organization's. Which goes against the traditional way we think about onboarding.

What happens when we join up

Onboarding, or as org psychologists like to call it, socialization, is the prickly process you start at a new organization. What's really happening here, the research suggests, is that you're forming a new social identity by encountering all these new people, which is perhaps why the thing is so nerve-racking.

The received wisdom on the starting-out process skews toward the organization: It's about how new people--that's Francesca in our example--fit into the new social group, how they take pride in the institution they're being installed in, to the point that some scholars have thought that you're only properly onboarded after you've been absorbed into the new group. This is because the organization wants to preserve continuity amongst all these individuals. However, this newly minted identity of yours is that of the organization--which may make you feel alienated and drained.

Positive psychology tells us there's another way: research into authenticity shows that people only feel authentic when their inner experiences--feelings, values, perspectives, and the like--are aligned with their external expressions, like the work that they do.

As Gino and her coauthors Daniel M. Cable and Bradley R. Staats note in a new paper Breaking Them In or Eliciting Their Best?, people need to feel as though they're acting authentically. Because:

  • Doing stuff that feels inauthentic drains your brain power
  • When you're drained from coping with inauthenticity, you'll quit or just suck at your job
  • If you feel authentic, you'll be more committed to your work
  • If you feel like you can't be understood in a group, you'll leave

So while the organization--explicitly or not--wants continuity, the person--explicitly or not--wants authenticity. Can you get both?

As Gino explained to us, you can, so long as you don't miss the opportunity to have people connect their sense of authenticity to the identity of the organization. Counterintuitively enough, emphasizing individuality allows the individual to more fully join the collective. It's kind of like how hiring is like dating, She explained:

It's a paradoxical result in that you're stressing their unique strengths and qualities and the result is they feel more committed and part of the organization. Why? You feel, by going through this experience, you feel that you can express yourself at work and feel authentic. The comparison with any type of relationship comes to mind, even in couples or in friendships the same thing happens: When people can express themselves authentically, they're more committed to the relationship as a result, because the other person is allowing you to bring out your best self. The same applies to employment relationships.

OK, so might be the case for elite universities, high-level professional firms, or startups, but what about work for everybody else?

An intervention

Near the end of 2009, Brad Staats was meeting with the manager of a call center for Wipro, an India-based leader in business-process outsourcing. Call centers, you may imagine, have insanely high turnover rates--like 50% to 70% of staff within a year--with many employees quitting only a few months after training. The job is a tough one: you're dealing with frustrated customers, sticking to a script, and Indian call center employees are expected to "de-Indianize" themselves for their jobs. And the manager had a question: how can you trim down attrition in such a situation?

Staats didn't have an answer then. But a few years later--as part of research for the aforementioned paper--he, Gino, and Cable may have found one.

On the day of orientation, the new employees were divided into three groups: one group emphasized individual identity, another organizational identity, and the control group used Wipro's traditional socialization, which has a focus on skills training and firm awareness.

For the sake of brevity, we'll set side the organizatonal identity-oriented process--which focused on how great it was to be a part of Wipro--for the individual-oriented one. Which came in five steps:

  1. A senior leader spent 15 minutes talking about how Wipro gave each new employee an opportunity to express themselves.
  2. Everyone played a "lost at sea" game--the kind where you think about what items you'd need to survive being on a desert island and how you'd use them--which was a form of reflective, individual work.
  3. Then everyone wrote answers to questions like what their Personal Highlight Reel was, when they were doing stuff they felt like they were born to do.
  4. Everybody spent 15 minutes introducing their best selves to their future work group
  5. Then everybody got fleece sweatshirts with their name printed on them, a symbol of that emphasis of individuality

The researchers then followed these new employees over six months. The results? People who did the organization-focused onboarding process were about twice as likely to quit than people who reflected on their strengths and got those sweet sweatshirts--plus they delivered higher customer satisfaction.

The question for us, then, is how to get on with our own onboarding

Just as a little positive reflection can de-stress a workday, that same positivity can alleviate the awkwardness of onboarding.

This, Gino explains, creates the win-win of better work experiences for the individual and better performance for the organization:

The Bottom Line: We focused on onboarding because it is a special time for newcomers; they often feel anxious, eager to fit in. We believe the same type of reflection could be helpful to people at other points of the employment relationship. So leaders could go through the same type of reflection on their own, asking themselves questions such as "What's unique about them? What are their strengths? How can they bring them out in their daily jobs?"

[Image: Flickr user Alan Jamieson]

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3 Comments

  • Jake Parent

    Imagine that - you show people that you care about their unique skill sets, talents, and personality (presumably the reason you hired them) and they react well. Seems like good advice for managers, not just soon after hire but as an ongoing process. 

    One other thought.... Firms seem to get so caught up in enforcing their culture, that they often don't realize they a) should hire people who are likely to adopt that culture b) have to make the culture clear, concise, and reinforced through all aspects of the operation (without being rigid and restricting). No easy challenge, to be sure, but these are key roles for managers. 

  • JoshF

    I appreciate the counter-intuitive insights -- I suspect the bottom line is:  People want to be recognized as people.  
    Of course this is true for retention as well as onboarding.