An old saw tell us, “You never have a second chance to make a first impression.” This applies to one-on-one introductions, but also to entering groups. When you join a new team–as a member or a coach–those first encounters shape future interactions.

Three Examples

Let’s look at some examples of people entering new groups.

Joining a Team

A skilled XP programmer joined a group that was adopting agile engineering practices.  On his very first day as part of the team, he told his new team mates that they needed to start doing TDD, and gave them a lesson in refactoring.  Over the next several weeks, he found the opportunity to coach each member on their programming skills.

He was quickly ostracized.

Attending a Retreat

A newcomer to a loosely organized professional group joined a long-planned retreat. The night before the retreat started, he announced the group was highly dysfunction….and he was going to fix it.

He started right in the next morning, challenging and confronting people. When one of the organizers offered the newcomer feedback, the newcomer shouted at him.

In retrospect, participants described the event as the most unpleasant in their long history.  The verdict from participants: “If he’s there next year, I won’t be.”

Joining a Board

The board of a non-profit arranged to hold one of their rare face-to-face meetings to coincide with the new members joining the group. The group worked with a facilitator to create an agenda focused on integrating the new member. For the first day, they planned to share history, review mission, revise working agreements. The second day focused on the future. The plan included identifying new initiatives, creating opportunities for new comers to join working groups.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the group, a new member arranged a breakfast meeting prior to the main session. He’d invited sales reps from a training company to attend. The night before the board meeting, He announced his breakfast meeting. as well as his hope that the board would endorse the training company.

The “old” members declined the breakfast meeting.

Much of the previous year had dealt with the very subject of training endorsements. After heated discussion, the board had decided to remain neutral.

The newcomer derided the old board members for resisting his ideas. That set the pattern for his participation. At the  end of the year, he was asked to leave the group.

The Common Threads

In each of these instances, the new group member wanted to contribute.  Why did their efforts backfire?

The new members failed to:

  • make contact and establish relationships before offering help and ideas.
  • understand the group, how the group viewed issues and develop empathy for their struggles.
  • orient to the group’s goal, history, and context and see how their ideas could fit in.

What to Do Instead When Entering a Group

In contrast, when people enter groups successfully, they:

  • Get to know the other group members and become known by them.
  • Learn something of the group’s history and context.
  • Orient themselves to the goal, tasks, and priorities of the group.
  • Look for ways to contribute that line up with those goals and priorities.

People have different needs for affiliation and inclusion, which affect how they go about entering. But  you can’t skip these processes, if you hope to become part of the group.  And this is especially important if your views are divergent from the rest of the group.  Coming in loaded for bear won’t help you be effective. Showing empathy for the groups journey will.

Looking back on the three examples I described above, the result isn’t surprising.  However well-meaning the newcomers were, they failed to integrate into the group.

I believe all three wanted to be helpful. They wanted to contribute. I suspect they wanted to be valued by the group and were trying to prove their worth.

But without entering the group before they tried to turn it, their actions assured the opposite result.

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