Joining a team as a team member

In my previous post, I discussed ways in which a leader can be effective as he/she joins a new team. In my opinion, culture plays the most important role in how easy (or difficult) it is for a newcomer to be accepted in a team, and this is more pronounced when you are a new team member to a team than when you join as a leader. As a leader, it is easier (than when you are a team member), since you have the option of changing the team operating style and culture since you have the authority (though this is a difficult task: changing something in a team is an extremely hard undertaking if you look at the absolute scale of difficulty).

When you are team member, most of the time you need to adapt to the team culture rather than change it (at least in the beginning). In couple of previous posts on Teams, I examined the ways you can try changing the team even as a member, but it is an extremely hard thing to do, and rarely successful. This post focuses more on getting to be part of a team and I assume that it is a team whose overall culture you subscribe to (if you don’t, you have a bigger problem at your hand than just getting acceptance!).

Most of the ideas in the joining the team as a leader applies here too because they help you establish a relationship of trust with team members and leaders and that is vital for getting acceptance in the team. However, there are some unique issues that you should watch out for, and this post is about two of those:

  1. Entering a team with strong culture: One of the problems I have seen in teams with strong culture is the difficulty a newcomer faces in getting accepted as part of the team. One of my ex-managers used to say “Your strength is your weakness”, and this is true for a team with strong culture. Because they bond so well with each other, understand each other so well, and have their own ‘language’ for communicating effectively (think of a ‘clan’ or ‘cult’), teams with strong culture also set a very high bar for acceptance, which makes life tough for a newcomer. Also, many teams with strong culture (and good performance) start with assuming that everyone else is less competent than them, and hence it becomes an uphill battle to prove your worth. Some things I have found to have worked well for me:
    1. Identifying ‘soft targets’: Most teams have some individuals who will be more willing to trust a newcomer than others, and getting to know them and impress them with the value you may provide to the team is a good way of getting a foot in the door. Nothing helps you more than an existing team member vouching for your great abilities to other team members.
    2. Identifying ‘influencers’: Many teams with strong culture will also have a few influencers who set the tone for the team. Acceptance in such a team actually means acceptance by one or more of those few influencers. If you can identify those and figure out ways of working with them closely (identify common interests, go out for lunch together, etc), there is a good chance they will accept you quickly, and then the whole team does so too.
    3. Be a ‘salesperson’: While no team likes to be told “your process is broken, my previous company had it nailed down”, no good team will mind if newcomers bring fresh ideas on the table. So rather than waiting for others to discover your true value, you should figure out ways where people can get to know you and your capabilities better, and faster. So for example, if you are sitting in a meeting to plan the next release, you should find opportunity to comment on some aspect in a polite way and suggest that you may have some ideas they may want to explore (without offending or mentioning your previous company, because that makes people defensive). As you do it multiple times in different meetings and really provide good ideas, people start valuing you and your opinions and they will seek you out, which is usually the sign that you have been accepted.
  2. Entering a team with diffused culture: By diffused culture, I mean a team which does not have visibly strong culture, and in the definition of team, this is likely to be a weak team. Typically, very big teams without any strong leaders or influencers will display this trait. This means that it is easy to get into such a team since bar for acceptance will be lower and there will be no one to push you back. However, it will be difficult to be productive in such a team since accountability, measures of success, and performance management systems may be missing/weak. The best way of getting acceptance into such a team is to try and show leadership for problems you see around you and drive them to closure. Most weak teams suffer from weak leadership, so your approach is likely to get people to notice you and this sets you up for a good position within the team. Of course, you need to watch out for teams (and team members) which does not excel but doesn’t allow others to excel too!

One of the things you should avoid doing when you are trying to gain acceptance is to use leader’s authority over the team to get you pushed through. I have never seen this approach succeed. This is because acceptance is all about building relationship and fostering trust, and these do not come because you have been asked to trust (or build relationship) by your manager, these come out of people’s own free will and hence these have to be earned. Above ideas may help earn these faster, but it will still be hard work and any newcomer to a team (even when he was the biggest star in his previous company) should be willing to put that effort. This is one reason why decision about changing a job should be taken with lots of thought and seriousness.

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