Everybody knows the cliches about the importance of first impressions, but it’s actually more important than most people realize. Research shows that the initial interactions you have with your new co-workers and boss when you first join a company or a department sets the tone for your entire tenure there. If your first three months are miserable, don’t just keep your head down and assume things will get better. They won’t.
“People form relatively rapid and lasting impressions of people,” says John Kammeyer-Mueller, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management who studied people’s relationships with supervisors and colleagues in their first 90 days on the job. Even towards the end of that fairly short window, he says, “They start to lock into a certain level of attitude towards the job, the organization and their co-workers.”
Kammeyer-Mueller surveyed people who started new jobs weekly for the first three months after they were hired and asked questions to determine if their new bosses and co-workers supported or undermined their efforts to settle into the new workplace. He found that people who started off reporting good moods and helpful colleagues responded positively about the job even after the 90 days were up and the assistance they got from co-workers and bosses to get them up to speed had dissipated.
Those who got a chilly reception at the outset, though, continued to struggle even as they settled into their new routines. “If things start out going badly, they have the potential to get a lot worse,” Kammeyer-Mueller says. “If you notice things starting to go badly you have to step in… You cannot be too vigilant to try to break that cycle.”
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The initial burst of goodwill and encouragement as a new hire settles in has a short half-life, even at good workplaces. New employees have to capitalize on that while they can, Kammeyer-Mueller says. New hires who land in a work climate straight out of Dilbert or The Office have to work even harder to keep an initial negative experience from defining the whole job.
The two tools to either keep a good thing going or turn a Dunder Mifflin-esque ship around are, in academic parlance, “hedonic tone and proactive socialization behavior.” In plain English, this roughly means what kind of mood you’re in, along with how and how much you talk to the people who work with you.
Being in (or faking) a good mood is a good start. People probably aren’t going to approach the new co-worker who’s in a bad mood to see how they’re doing or if they need anything. But even a good mood won’t always draw other people to you.
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Kammeyer-Mueller says new hires have to take the bull by the horns and engage the people around them by asking questions about how to perform a task or to solicit feedback — advice that only sounds simple. “That’s a challenge for a lot of people. It’s not free to do these things,” Kammeyer-Mueller says. “You’re potentially inviting a negative reaction from people [because] when you say, ‘How do I do this?’, you’ve admitted you don’t know.”
That’s why many people don’t do this, especially if their initial take is that the people at their new job are cold and unfriendly. But Kammeyer-Mueller says these workers are the ones who really need to be asking questions like, “What could I have done better?”, “How should this job be done?” and even just, “Want to grab coffee?”
“It becomes a virtuous circle,” he says. “Asking people for help may make them more willing to help you.” Don’t ask questions just to have something to say, but use that social capital to find out how to do things and how the organization runs.
“People who do well in the socialization phase tend to do better in their jobs,” Kammeyer-Mueller says, and they tend to stay at them longer, too. “If you fail to adapt to your co-workers and your supervisors, it doesn’t matter how well you did at your last job.”