You’re Starting a New Role. Here’s How to Set Yourself Up for Success

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Authored by

NLI Staff
What brain science says about how to set yourself up for success when you’re starting a new job.

Starting a new gig has always been tough, but the challenges of a hybrid workplace have made it even more so. Maybe you haven’t met your new colleagues in person, so you find it hard to participate in the somewhat-frivolous practice of bonding over a favorite sports team or hobby. Maybe you don’t realize the resting-angry-face expressed by your coworker in Zoom meetings masks a warm personality that used to greet colleagues with hugs. Or maybe a tech issue that could’ve been explained in 10 minutes by swinging by a team member’s office now takes twice as long – and leaves out important context — by email.

The first few months at a new job can be among the most challenging times in a person’s career. You’re thrust into a new environment with different norms and expectations, putting you in the uncomfortable position of not having the knowledge, skills, and relationships you need to succeed.

And it doesn’t help that based on our brain’s wiring, we treat everyone as a foe until proven otherwise – which was supremely useful back when humans were evolving, but is decidedly less so when it comes to building rapport with new colleagues.

Resist the urge to prove yourself

It’s natural to want to show people why you were hired. As a newcomer, you’re all too aware that you’re being judged, and that level of scrutiny can make you feel the need to demonstrate your worth, especially if you’re in a higher-level position.

But this is a classic new job blunder that Michael D. Watkins, author of The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, calls the “action imperative.” When you rush in and try to make your mark before you understand how things work, you’re liable to make bad decisions — and alienate your new peers.

You’re also at risk of sticking too closely to what you already know and what’s worked in the past. Every culture is unique, so succeeding in your new role will mean doing some things the same and others differently — and you need to take the time to figure out which are which.

So instead of trying to prove yourself, focus on improving yourself. By adopting a growth mindset – the belief that your skills and abilities can be improved over time – you can focus on filling gaps in your knowledge and skills instead of trying to impress people.

Don’t go it alone

Another common trap is to come into a new role thinking you have to figure everything out on your own. Since many of our decisions are made using mental shortcuts, or inherent cognitive biases, trying to do too much on your own, rather than discussing your ideas with others, often can backfire.

That’s why it’s important to solicit viewpoints from others. Your new colleagues can help you absorb institutional knowledge, and provide context for initiatives that have already been tested. After all, much of what you’ll need to know to excel at your job has probably never been put in print. Rather, it’s “soft” information that resides in the minds of employees about culture and strategy, processes and systems, and ways of doing things. The only way to learn this kind of information is to ask questions and talk to people.

Create shared goals

When an outsider joins a new team, it can be intimidating for the people who were there before — especially if the newcomer is in a position to judge their performance. A new employee on a team, especially a new leader, can put the brain into a threat state that interferes with employees’ ability to think and solve problems.

If your new colleagues classify you as a member of the outgroup, studies show they’ll judge you more harshly — grasping for reasons to dislike you, whether valid or not. On the other hand, if they accept you as being one of them, it activates an affective network of brain regions that lets them feel what you feel — a phenomenon known as intergroup empathy bias. The result is that your colleagues will like you, judge you positively, and be inclined to cooperate in a spirit of teamwork and collaboration.

If you’re a leader, one of the most powerful ways to be accepted into your new work group is to create shared goals. By making people feel you’re in it together, you’ll create a sense of group identity that promotes bonding and social cohesion.

Send positive social signals

It’s also important to remember that your new colleagues don’t know your communication styles, quirks, and facial expressions – and a hybrid environment makes it even harder to read people. When you’re silent, they have no idea if you’re fuming or just shy, or how to distinguish your “deep-in-thought” face from your angry face.

Studies show people don’t understand us nearly as well as we imagine they do. The warm spirit of camaraderie we think we’re exuding, for instance, may not come through as clearly as we presume. Our faces are less expressive than we believe and the private thoughts and subtle emotions we assume are self-evident can actually be impossible to discern — a bias known as the illusion of transparency.

The problem is that in the absence of certainty, people interpret neutral information as negative. If you’re not actively expressing positivity, you may be inadvertently exuding negativity — or neutral signals that get interpreted negatively.

The solution is to communicate more clearly and explicitly than you probably think you need to. So be intentional about sending positive social signals — virtually or in person, to reduce people’s sense of threat by letting them know you respect them, value their expertise, and appreciate their contributions.

There’s no doubt about it — switching jobs is hard. But by following the science and applying these principles, you can excel in your new role and beyond.

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