By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

It’s that time of the year when we’re most likely to see newcomers showing up at our office or shop doors.

As school terms end, students migrate from classrooms into work settings and become new members of our work teams.

Older adults may think of summer as a traditional time to let our hair down and enjoy life, but for new people on the job it’s often a time of supreme stress brought on by quantum doses of uncertainty.

If we’re concerned about helping them get off on the right foot, it’s a good time to discover or remember and then apply the lessons in the Way of the Carpenter.

Focus on first stage

As you may recall, the first stage of development for any worker is “novice.” And the needs of a novice are unique.

Leaders who satisfy those needs are most likely to benefit from growing solid, competent team members.

But it’s essential to remember that few if any of these novices will be very competent at the start. They’ll have to learn to crawl and walk before they can run. And that’s where good leadership comes in.

The Jesus-like Leader knows that team members pass through four stages of development:

  • Novice – when people need a lot of direction and affirmation;
  • Apprentice – when people need coaching, a mix of correction and encouragement;
  • Journeyman – when people need mentoring, where the focus is on affirmation and encouragement;
  • Master/teacher – when people need commissioning – a mix of validation, delegation and authorization.

The S3 Leader knows that the stages are not entirely distinct, but rather developmental, and one person can be at different stages with respect to different tasks and responsibilities. Nevertheless, the effective leader is always trying to serve both employer and employee by focusing on the development of others.

In the case of newcomers, who are novices, that means trying to provide a healthy mix of basic information, direction and affirmation – all of it served up with an overabundance of communication.

Lots of direction

When someone is new on the job, there are a lot of things they need to know. But perhaps the most important message to impart through the inevitable maze of paperwork and compliance issues is that they are a valued member of the team.

Since their value isn’t derived from the amazing skill set and experience they bring to the job, it’s important to be clear about the basis of their value: they have a good attitude, they demonstrate that they are committed to doing a good job, they are punctual, they are polite, they listen carefully and respectfully, they’re bright and engaged, they take notes, and they are fairly bursting with potential.

When you see something good, tell them. You don’t have to fawn, but it never hurts of offer legitimate, heartfelt praise – even for little things you observe.

Two kinds of challenges

Newcomers tend to come in two types. They can show up with a bundle of fears ... or none at all. In either case, they present a challenge that effective leaders have to be able to diagnose and treat.

  • Those who are intimidated by their new circumstances will need extra helpings of encouragement and affirmation.
  • Those who are overconfident that they can quickly prove their value – and are too eager to do so – will need more direction. But it should be served with doses of reassurance and calls for patience.

Plans are key

If you’re the person primarily responsible for a new employee’s orientation and development, it’s important to proceed with a plan. When it was my responsibility to oversee new employees, I soon learned that I had to steal time from other tasks to have a detailed schedule waiting for them on the first day.

It was a schedule that would cover virtually every minute of their first two weeks on the job.

That schedule provided them with:

  • basic employment rules – and time to read them;
  • things to learn – and time to learn them;
  • people to meet;
  • questions to answer;
  • meetings to attend.

While I gave them plenty of time – scheduled, structured time – to meet other people they would be working with, I also scheduled plenty of check-in sessions, usually at least once a day, sometimes more often, where I spent most of my time listening to them about their experiences and the lessons they were harvesting.

Those listening sessions gave me the data I needed to further flesh out their schedules and learning objectives.

Always the focus was on learning, directions, structure and accountability.

For example, when they were scheduled to meet others, it was not just “to get acquainted.” They were tasked with specific things to find out in each encounter – things we would be discussing later.

A lesson from babies

My dad always taught me that I could – and indeed, should – learn from everyone. No exceptions. The responsibility of guiding newbies illustrates how we can learn a profound lesson from our interaction with babies.

I’m thinking here of a baby who is learning to take her first steps.

While some kids catch on quicker than others, but the pattern of progress is pretty much the same. She takes some hesitant steps while holding on to a chair or table. After a bit she moves around pretty quickly so long as she has something to hang on to.

Then one day she lets go and takes a step. Boom! She falls down. She crawls back to her support system and tries again. She falls again. She tries again. And again. Over and over. Eventually she takes that first wobbly step. And then another.

Often she’s so excited that she raises her hands over her head in triumph, loses all sense of self and circumstances – and falls down again. No matter. She’s got this now. Time to try again, newly empowered by the experience of success.

The big lesson in this process has to do with how adults react. Early in the process have you ever seen a parent or a caregiver offer the baby a detailed critique about how to walk? Of course not!

What we do is encourage them. No matter how awkward they are, no matter how many times they fall, we encourage them to try again. When they cry from a fall or the frustration of persistent failure, we pick them up, hug them, console them.

And then when they have calmed down and collected themselves, we put them back down on the floor to try again. And again we encourage them – affirming them at every term.

New employees aren’t exactly like new babies. And most likely they wouldn’t appreciate any comparison. But the intuitive wisdom we have when dealing with babies trying to learn new things shouldn’t be lost on us when we’re dealing with older models of humanity.

No matter what the person’s chronological age, when they’re learning new stuff the best we can help them is usually by encouraging them.

With a baby learning to walk, we try to create a safe area for them to learn – no sharp edges, a stable surface that’s not too hard when they fall. Then we give them lots of attention and opportunities to learn, and finally we encourage them at every turn.

That’s not a bad template for helping anyone new grow and develop on the job.