First day at School
This experience was repeated many times throughout my life. The next occasion was moving from Infant to Junior School, then from Junior to Senior school. And because my Father moved frequently at that time, I ended up going to three different Secondary schools, plus a Sixth Form college. The anxiety followed me.
Each transition, whilst perhaps not as horrifying as the first, was difficult. There was the whole process of working out where I was in the new environment, and how I might be able to thrive in it (or not). And starting anew with friendship groups, even for an extrovert like me, was a challenge.
First Day at the Office
As an adult, these feelings of anxiety when we join a new company, or a new team, or take on a new role, do not disappear. Usually, they are less obvious to others because we have grown accustomed to burying them from ourselves, disregarding them as foolish, or hiding them. The sad reality is, that they exist despite our attempts to suppress them.
We exert so much wasted energy when we pretend to ourselves and others that we’re perfectly OK with the new situation. What’s more, we start to act in ways that are unhelpful to the formation of the team, and potentially make it even harder for us to find a good home there. We might be guarded, watchful, non-committal: we might be over or under-confrontational as we jostle for a position that satisfies us; we might try to align ourselves with certain people who look like they might be the ring-leaders, and distance ourselves from others who look like they might be the runts of the litter. Our anxiety might make us indecisive and unclear in the way we communicate, as we dance around subjects rather than express our true opinions.
This inability to be open with each other at the earliest opportunity is a disaster for ourselves and for our teams. It sets in train a series of actions and events that eat away at trust and undermine the potential of the team.
It’s almost certain that whatever you feel when you join a new team is very similar to what your new team mates are also feeling. Similar or a variation of. So, there is nothing to be gained from pretending that no-one is feeling like this.
Part of the successful formation of a team is the process by which people declare their anxieties, their ambitions, their expectations and their needs. These are the things that give us all deep insight to our colleagues; enabling trust to develop. It also makes it much more possible for the team to create the ideal conditions that will meet the needs of each member.
It’s likely that some of the questions and anxieties we have when joining a new group are along the following lines:
Will I be able to contribute?
Will I enjoy being part of this group?
Will I be able to develop within this group?
Will I feel safe here?
Will my skills be useful and appreciated?
Will the team’s values be aligned with my personal values?
We have an expression in the UK that refers to opening up a can of worms. What it implies is that that we should keep the worms firmly in their can, because they will cause grief and conflict if allowed to ooze out. I take a different view, which I find much more liberating.
The function of a worm is to aerate and clean the soil. Without worms, the soil would lose its fertility and nothing would grow. Trapping worms inside a can means that they are exerting their energy for no benefit whatsoever. Therefore, it’s better to let them out and let them get to work.
It’s the same with these hidden anxieties. They exist and they are eating away at us, so why not put them to good use. Just because we try to ignore them doesn’t mean they aren’t there or that they aren’t having an influence on us.
Rather than being afraid to open up our cans of worms, teams need to equip themselves with a can-opener and make sure they use it. Before anxieties start to feed political manoeuvring, and before people get locked in unhelpful roles within the team, there needs to be a process for allowing people to voice their concerns and anxieties in a controlled and safe way.