Who’s the New Guy on the Team?

As the clock ticks down, the team gathers in preparation for one last play. Confidence is shaken a bit when everyone realizes there is a new face in the huddle, and no one has time to run the rookie through the playbook.

While breaking in a new teammate during the final big play of the game may be unusual in the sports world, new teammates showing up is a constant reality in today’s workplace. And the pressure to perform in the midst of a teammate transition can impact everyone.

The transition into the team is usually more scripted and supported when the new job description includes being the team leader. New manager team assimilation exercises are often an early agenda item in team meetings. We all recognize devoting team time to get to know the new leader builds trust and effective collaboration.

But what about the new team member who isn’t the team captain? At best, there is a quick introduction of the person at a meeting, and the team turns its attention to the next agenda item. In my experience, devoting more time to team member introductions will pay off with similar benefits. There are three questions where new teammates need help to navigate:

Who are these people and why are we together? Teams operate differently. Some are highly integrated and work closely to create common work products. Other groups assemble to communicate their mostly independent actions. If there is high integration with shared problem solving and decision making, the new person needs to view team encounters as essential to daily work. On the other hand, a loose coalition team style means the new person is expected to act independently and not depend on team encounters to move work ahead. Regardless of operating style, I’ve found less risk when new performers start assignments with a great desire to reach out and communicate.

What do I need to know that no one is telling me? Whether tight or loose, all teams have unwritten rules that must be quickly understood. One excellent move is to assign an experienced and trusted co-worker to help; a player-coach can explain the unspoken and pass along early adjustment tips.

Much like visiting a foreign land, having a local show you around makes all the difference. For example, the player-coach can help the new person hit the right balance of how much to listen and observe versus jump in and advocate change.

Alternatively, where does team work get done? I’ve worked in two organizations with very different answers. My early career work placed me on teams where problems and decisions were hashed out in regular team meetings. In fact, it was expected to engage in lively and often messy debates to resolve issues and align everyone. Later, I worked in team settings where meeting topics were well processed prior to any group encounter. In those settings, knowing whom to talk to in advance and how to position topics in meetings became critical. Moreover, I had to learn the subtle signals in team meetings about who was really on board with a decision or whether more individual follow-up time was required to reach commitment.

What do they want to know? The fundamental issue of new members entering a performing team is trust. Trust is built in a number of ways, including knowing about the new person’s interests, style, talents and pet peeves. Set time aside at a team meeting to allow the new member to be introduced. Keep it light, and allow others to reciprocate what works well to build the right tone of trust. Similar to a new manager assimilation, this is investing team time to accelerate strong relationships. I’ve facilitated introductions where all respond to questions, such as what are the expectations for the new role, what start-up lessons learned can we share and how will we support the new teammate.

In today’s highly matrixed and collaborative organization, individual talent performs in a team context. Thoughtfully guiding the startup process with the new player and the standing team increases the odds of winning through transitions.