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Keith Rollag Ph.D.
Keith Rollag Ph.D.

Success in New Situations: Five Key Skills

Simple things you can do to be more comfortable and confident when you're new

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Success almost always starts with being new. To achieve our career goals we join new organizations, get promoted into new groups, and accept transfers to new cities and countries. We’re often new with every re-organization and re-structuring, and every time we travel to meet new customers or attend conferences. Outside of work we’re new every time we take up a new hobby or sport, or move to a new neighborhood. It’s hard to take advantage of new opportunities without putting ourselves out there, meeting new people and trying new things.

Over the past 20 years I’ve been studying the newcomer experience, trying to understand the difference between newcomers who quickly become productive, integrated members and those who find themselves less effective and connected than they had hoped to be. I’ve interviewed and conducted surveys with hundreds of newcomers, and have asked dozens to keep diaries of their first few weeks on the job.

Through my research I’ve found that success in new situations is often based on our confidence and ability to perform five key behaviors:

  • Introducing ourselves to strangers
  • Remembering the names of people we’ve just met
  • Proactively asking questions of busy, important people
  • Starting and nurturing new relationships of all kinds
  • Performing new roles and tasks in front of unfamiliar people

If we’re reluctant to introduce ourselves to strangers we will rarely build the networks we need to be productive and successful. If we rely mostly on the internet and own knowledge to get things done (instead of asking the experienced and expert for advice) we learn slowly and make little progress. If we wait for other people to approach and build relationships with us (instead of taking the initiative) we often remain on the periphery. If we worry too much about performing well and avoiding mistakes we seldom take the risks required for creative, bold action. And it’s hard to maintain positive relationships with people if we can’t remember their names.

Consider these the “punt, pass, and kick” skills of not only being a successful newcomer, but an impactful leader, teammate and group member. In many situations I’ve found that new leaders often fail not because they were poor leaders, but because they were tentative, awkward, isolated newcomers.

Sadly, few of us have been taught to perform these five newcomer behaviors well, or have spent the time to reflect upon or practice these critical interpersonal skills. Given that we’ll be performing these activities thousands of times over the rest of our careers, getting better and more comfortable doing them offers long-lasting benefits.

Here are a few ideas that can help increase your confidence and ability in each skill:

  1. Introducing yourself to co-workers. Recognize that as a new member you have the implicit justification and expectation to introduce yourself to just about anyone. If you’re nervous about approaching and interrupting busy, important people, put yourself in their shoes ask yourself whether you’d be open to meeting a newcomer in a similar situation. If so, go for it. Sometimes it helps to practice your opening lines, and prepare a list of initial questions to show interest and effort. Don’t hesitate to re-introduce yourself later if you didn’t get a good introduction the first time.
  2. Remembering names. Due to evolution and bad habits, most of us are pretty poor at learning and recalling names, even though we know it makes a great “second” impression. Our brains actually process proper names differently than other information we learn about people, and initially the neural connection between faces and names is weak. When you’re introduced, make a commitment to listen carefully to their names, and repeat them back to ensure you get them into short-term memory. Mentally test yourself on their names during your initial conversation and then write their names down as soon as you can after the introduction. More importantly, take the time to learn and test yourself on their names and faces and “prime” your brain by reviewing names before upcoming meetings and interactions.
  3. Asking questions. When I’ve asked newcomers what they wish they could do over again, most say “Ask more questions.” Unfortunately, many newcomers are reluctant to approach new colleagues and ask questions because they either don’t want to bother busy people, or fear making a bad first impression. The key is to recognize that the social risk of asking a “dumb” question is almost always less than one thinks, and if a quick internet search doesn’t reveal an obvious answer then it’s probably not a “dumb” question anyway. Most people expect newcomers to ask questions, so don’t waste more time worrying about asking a question – just find someone that may know the answer (or likely knows someone who does) and ask the question. When you’re new, try to find (or ask for) a buddy who can be someone to whom you can quickly and easily ask your “newbie” questions.
  4. Starting relationships. All work gets done through relationships, and the most successful newcomers go beyond introductions to build the mix of relationships they need to be productive, integrated, and satisfied. Take the time to identify who you need to meet, and find (or create opportunities) to build the kind of relationship you need to be successful. For some you’ll need a collaborative relationship, for others an informational one, and with still others you just want a social connection. Don’t assume the other person will make the first move – find opportunities to approach others before or after meetings, invite them to lunch, or take advantage of company events to socialize.
  5. Performing new things in front of others. Many newcomers worry and get stressed over their initial performances, especially with tasks that are unfamiliar (or things they think they should be expected to know how to do already). They worry about making their first sales pitch or project presentations, or writing their first reports. Some of that fear comes from growing up with a mindset that fears making mistakes, and focuses on “being good.” Newcomers will be more successful (and less stressed) if they approach new performance situations with the mindset of “getting better” and a focus on learning. In reality, oldtimers don’t expect flawless performance from newcomers, so don’t enter new situations expecting perfection in your first try.

All of these skills can be improved through reflection and practice. The key is to enter new situations excited by the prospect of a good experience rather than worry about the possibility of a bad one.

Note: This is adapted from my new book What to Do When You’re New: How to Be Comfortable, Confident and Successful in New Situations. Now available in Barnes and Noble bookstores nationwide as well as online in the usual places. Visit the book website and read Chapter One for free.

About the Author
Keith Rollag Ph.D.

Keith Rollag, Ph.D., is Associate Professor and Chair of the Management Division at Babson College.

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