For a Better Workplace, Make First Moments Matter

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Professor Jane Dutton shows how to boost employee engagement and performance by improving the way companies select and introduce new employees.

A Gallup survey shows just 32 percent of employees in the United States feel engaged at work. To Michigan Ross Professor Jane Dutton, that’s just further evidence too many people are “dying at work.”

If employees aren’t growing or reaching their potential, neither are their companies. Dutton’s research and teaching focus on helping people become the best they can be, and organizations become places where people can thrive long-term.

The good news is that there are a number of things people can do on their own, and with each other, at work that don’t cost a dime but reap rewards in terms of lower turnover, better productivity, higher morale, and better personal and collective outcomes.

One area where Dutton sees a need for improvement is the way new hires are introduced to co-workers.

Dutton

“I talk to a lot of our MBA alumni and so many tell me how poorly they’re brought on board when they’re hired,” she says. “For relationships at work, first moments matter. It sets the path to become a thriving part of the organization.”

Dutton brings her expertise to the Ross Executive Education Program The Positive Leader: Deep Change and Organizational Transformation. She draws upon her years of research and those of others in the field. Dutton also is a core faculty member of the Center for Positive Organizations at Ross.

When it comes to new hires, Dutton says there are two areas that need to be considered — selection and onboarding.

Research shows selecting people based on skill and how they meet job requirements alone is a recipe for stagnation, especially in a knowledge business. Companies need to also consider a candidate’s relational competence.

More questions need to be asked about how a person will affect others on the team. Are they a person who can help others be successful? Are they resourceful, resilient, and energizing? Those are every bit as important as technical skills, Dutton says.

Next is how companies bring new employees on board. Companies do spend a lot of time and effort introducing new hires, but it often focuses on information and not relationships. That means they miss the chance to make sure new hires have made the best possible first impressions on their future co-workers, she says.

Successful companies can do a lot of work marketing a new hire to the organization before the person’s first day. They don’t just include their background and resume, but also introduce the person in terms of their talents and interests. Innovative companies also have systems that allow new hires to find the people who can help them the most right away. Some have developed apps while others use incentives.

“Most companies give people a lot of information about the new hire, but do little to foster connections with the people they need to know in order to do their jobs well,” she says. “And those first moments are so important. When you bring someone on board and foster the formation of high-quality connections quickly, they feel like they are a part of a whole and know about other people’s needs and talents right away. This fosters an overall climate of helping.”

Does it work? Dutton points to research conducted by Center for Positive Organizations post-doctoral fellow Julia Lee that compared traditional corporate onboarding and ones that focused on people sharing stories of their positive contributions during their onboarding. The newcomers that shared positive stories saw improvements in employment relationships, which helped reduce this group’s turnover rate, as compared to those who did not.

“There are a lot of levers leaders can use to build capability in their organizations, and hiring and onboarding are areas where they have a lot of influence,” Dutton says. “It doesn’t cost money, but it takes courage and a belief that hiring people and onboarding them in ways that foster positive connections are critical for building a committed and productive workforce. These are proven ways to elevate people and companies. We’re so accustomed to living with mediocrity, and we know we’re capable of more.”

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