Last week the NFL announced that it had hired its first full-time coach—Kathryn Smith of the Buffalo Bills.
While most of us aren’t earning a paycheck planning gridiron strategy, plenty of workers landing high-profile jobs are breaking barriers on a regular basis. And, like Smith, they may be doing it in an environment that isn’t necessarily accustomed to their point of view.
That’s a company’s loss. When an organization opens itself to minority and alternative viewpoints, “it leads to greater trust, transparency, creative thinking and innovation in the workplace,” said Kris Duggan, CEO of BetterWorks, which makes HR software to help companies set and track their goals.
Even if you’re receiving support at the organizational level, though, meshing with the people you’ll be sitting next to and attending meetings with is crucial.
Although fitting in at a new job is usually at least a bit stressful for everyone, it can be especially tricky for, say, the sole baby boomer in a department of 20-somethings or the lone Lone Star State native in an office full of New Yorkers. If you’re the only one at your job representing your gender, ethnic group, sexual orientation, religion, or age bracket, career experts say there are some steps you can take to ease your transition into the group.
“It’s a fine balance between highlighting your strengths and showing restraint with making radical changes,” said Joris Luijke, vice president of people at workforce training and development company Grovo. Here’s what he and others recommend:
Take it slow. You might be looking forward to shaking things up, but don’t implement all of your ideas right off the bat. “It is important to take the time to listen to the team and observe,” Luijke said. “You don’t have to make many strategic changes in your first weeks.” Coming in with an openness to listen and integrate yourself into the group rather than superimposing your way of doing things onto existing systems will prevent your new co-workers from feeling alienated.
Don’t be a know-it-all. “In today’s work environment it is common for a baby boomer to be working in a team of millennials,” said Blake Nations, CEO of Over50JobBoard.com. In that case, the most important rule is remembering that, when it comes to today’s workforce, age doesn’t always mean wisdom. “You may be more experienced, but consider everyone else as equals,” he said.
Establish measurable performance goals. Schedule a meeting with your manager within the first week to discuss performance, Duggan said. “Get on the same page with expectations and aspirational goals, so differences aside, you know what real achievement and even overachievement look like in a tangible way,” he recommended. This is good advice for any new hire, but it’s especially pertinent if you’re concerned that your ethnicity or other attribute might prompt unspoken or unconscious prejudice. “Having a baseline of measurement… can help remove the performance biases sometimes held by managers,” Duggan said.
Don’t feel forced to conform. “You may feel pressure – real or imagined – to defy certain stereotypes or expectations, but keep in mind that what got you to this position is your skills,” said CareerBuilder chief human resources officer Rosemary Haefner. If you sublimate who you are, you risk emotional exhaustion and burnout that can hurt your performance.
Focus on your shared goals. “You have more in common with your new co-workers than it may appear,” Duggan said. “You are all working together towards the same vision,” he pointed out. While this won’t magically make differences disappear, the experts are unanimous: bringing your A-game and demonstrating what you can contribute to the success of your team or department will go a long way towards breaking down barriers.