To the Career Counselor:
At my institution the senior leadership are mostly people who are older and who have all been here for 25 years or more. I am the new kid on the block, and not an insider. That puts me at a disadvantage and limits my ability to make contributions to the direction of our institution. Are there good strategies for engaging these people so they will include me?
— New Kid on the Block
Dear New Kid:
Your relationships with your colleagues are important — good workplace relationships can help you do your job better. They can also make going to work every day enjoyable. Bad relationships with colleagues can distract you and can turn a so-so job into a nightmare. Hopefully the following tips will help you set up good relationships with your colleagues.
- Understand the power structure. Does your arrival threaten any of your colleagues? You may not think of yourself as threatening, but especially if you're the new kid in an organization primarily comprised of people who've worked together comfortably for many years in their existing roles, some of them might feel threatened by your arrival. If you can identify those individuals, you can take extra steps to build relationships with them.
- Respect Your Colleagues. Respect is the foundation of all good relationships, including those you have with your colleagues. Do your best to avoid offending those with whom you work, even — or perhaps especially — if you don't agree with their point of view. Of course, you will occasionally encounter a prickly coworker who is easily offended...but there is little you can do about that.
- Get Some Advice. Talk with the head of your leadership team. Presumably the person who hired you had sound reasons for doing so, and he or she might have good suggestions about how you can gain acceptance. On the other hand, you might have been hired to introduce new ideas or a more youthful perspective to the team. Your leader should be able to help you strategize about how to achieve an appropriate balance between team acceptance and introducing change.
- Communicate. Along similar lines, talk with some (or all) members of the senior leadership team one-on-one. Express your concerns about being new and solicit their advice about what you can do to help foster acceptance.
- LISTEN. More than ever, now is the time to listen before you talk. Meet with each of your colleagues and ask them about their work. Listen for both what they're saying directly and what they might be saying between the lines. You'll learn a great deal about each of your colleagues and what motivates them, which in turn will help you figure out how you can best fit in.
- Relate. Food brings people together. People open up more in casual environments, such as over lunch at the faculty club, instead of during staff meetings. If you share any hobbies with others in the senior team, discuss them before or after meetings. If you enjoy school sports, attend games with some of your new colleagues. To work together efficiently, teams need to develop trust. Judicious socialization is a great way to build trust faster with others.
- Be Genuine and Authentic. If you are genuinely interested in getting to know the senior team, then you are more likely to build a useful connection and grow that relationship effectively. If you are simply trying to create a relationship to use them when you want something and you really do not care about them as individual, knowledgeable and talented people — they will figure that out and not like you for it.
- Create Small Victories. It may be too soon to expect "...to make contributions to the direction of our institution...." Instead, build one-on-one relationships with your colleagues by helping them find solutions to a problem or discovering new perspectives on an issue where you have strength and experience. By building relationships one colleague at a time, your credibility will increase. When the time comes to make those larger scale contributions you mentioned, your opinion and perspective will have a demonstrated track record of success, and respect for your input should build.
- Reflect on Your Findings. Spend some time thinking about what each member of the team brings to the table, including you. If it is clear that you bring new strengths, those strengths might provide some context for your conversations. If you can identify those skills you could learn from your colleagues, this might help them accept you.
- Find a Mentor. Is there a member of the senior team who seems to be widely accepted/respected by everyone else? If so, consider asking whether that person would be willing to help you gain wider acceptance across the group. If nobody on the senior team fits that description, is there another leader at your institution who might be able to advise you?
- Suggest a Retreat. Perhaps a senior leadership team retreat would be a solution to getting to know everyone. Suggest it if you think it would work.
- Learn to Manage Stress. Trying to become accepted by others on the senior team could cause weekly, or even daily, stress. Be sure you learn how to handle and reduce job stress so you can feel more at peace when you are at work.
In addition to these suggestions, other resources can give you more insight. EDUCAUSE has several leadership and management resources that you can use, and your colleagues in higher education have also written articles and posted information on leadership topics. Here is just a sample of some of the professional development activities you could do:
- Check out the EDUCAUSE Leadership and Management Professional Development Resources page for information on programs to enhance your success as a leader.
- Read through the EDUCAUSE Mentoring Kit for information should you decide to find a mentor.
- Search EDUCAUSE for management and leadership and you will find a wealth of resources, including this page with links to publications, presentations, wikis, and blogs.
- Aside from EDUCAUSE there are higher education institutions that offer programs in management and leadership, including Excelsior College's Center for Technology Leadership, the Harvard Executive and Management Programs, or The Wharton School Executive Programs in Leadership, and many, many more.
- Read management books that address the topic of trust and building relationships. An interesting one is Patrick Lencioni's The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable.
What if acceptance by your colleagues proves elusive? Introspection can help you recognize if you're coming across as abrasive, a pushover, or not a team player. Leave room for the possibility that your behavior bears some responsibility for the lack of belonging in the senior team. Evaluate your own ability to listen and learn from others, and prepare yourself for what you may hear. Asking people how they view your actions could result in uncomfortable, possibly even painful, feedback. How you respond to their comments is critical. Your ability to receive constructive criticism gracefully will demonstrate a willingness to learn and grow professionally, while a defensive response might only increase the distance between you and other members of the senior team.
The workplace, like anyplace you bring together a group of people, is a jumble of different personalities. Even with the best intentions, you might still find it difficult to work with some members of the senior team. Be willing to accept partial or non-acceptance. Accept the possibility that things won't get better soon. Finally, keep in mind that you might not want to gain acceptance if it means compromising your principles.
Remember, listening is vital to relationships. Whether you are strengthening a relationship, resolving a conflict, or offering support, good listening skills are crucial. Learn how to be a truly supportive listener, and you may find yourself surrounded by others who do the same.
Do you have a question for the Career Counselor? Please send your questions to [email protected]. (Your identity will be kept strictly confidential.)