The moment I woke up from surgery, I could tell my situation was already different. Even with the lingering effects of anesthesia, my eyesight was clearer. My mind was clearer, too. I felt sharper and more alert. Elated. Relieved. Of the 100,000 people waiting to receive a kidney in 2016, I was one of the privileged 19,000 to get one. It happened because of the love, courage and selflessness of a living donor — my wife.
Soon after, in a moment of organ empathy, it dawned on me that what that kidney went through — passing from my wife’s body to mine — is like what new hires go through when joining a new team. Both find themselves in a new environment that can be hostile. Both impact and are impacted by that environment. Both have little control, if any. And metaphorically, if not literally, both need help to stay alive.
What can be done to increase the likelihood that a new hire is welcomed into a new team and is successful? Successful organ transplants offer some transferable insights.
Make sure the candidate is the best match.
In 2003, when I became aware of my kidney disease, I knew very little about it or the transplant process. I knew that a new kidney must come from a donor with a compatible blood type. Otherwise, rejection is assured. But in the imperfect business of matching organs, other factors need consideration, too. Tissue typing, for example, tells doctors which antigens and antibodies are at play in the match. Then there is the size of the kidney and height of the person. Would a kidney meant for a 5-foot-6-inch, 135-pound body work in my 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound frame?
Just as finding the best organ match goes beyond blood type, finding the best candidate goes beyond a formidable resume. All too often, recruiters and hiring managers are seduced into hiring people who have impressive past accomplishments, name recognition or enviable personal contacts but who in practice are abrasive, intimidating or disrespectful. When these toxic rock stars come into a system, the consequences can be profound and long-lasting. Research by Georgetown University’s Dr. Christine Porath suggests that those who experience or even witness incivility at work (bullying, disrespect, rudeness) cut back on effort, make more mistakes and sometimes leave the company altogether.
Where creating a culture of openness, collaboration and high performance is a priority, we cannot turn a blind eye to uncivil behavior. We should be clear about standards for civility. And we should insist on hiring practices that help spot red flags before candidates arrive. Otherwise, we will find that while we have filled roles in the short term, we have weakened and eroded organizational culture for years to come.
Make sure the team is ready for the transition.
Needing a kidney and finding someone willing to donate one is exciting but not in itself enough to move the process forward. In my case, after I had done all I could to maintain my health through diet, sleep and exercise, I had to let go of the “I alone can fix this” mindset. I had to embrace the new and become open to help.
As with organ transplants, welcoming new team members is about readiness. Team culture is a silent sentinel that can alienate or reject a new hire perceived as a threat. Best-selling leadership author Michael Watkins suggests that culture is the organization’s immune system. And while in many cases teams and organizations need protection from a bad hire (for instance, when a toxic rock star joins a team and quickly creates an environment of fear), in a way that’s not helpful. Teams can secretly or openly, incrementally or suddenly, push back.
We should make it our mission to inspire trust in the new (new people, new ideas) and in the things that matter. Trust is a choice, a leap of faith that lets people accept risk willingly. With new hires, the challenge is to help the team make that choice. We should be ready to have difficult conversations, like why an external person was hired when internal candidates were qualified. We should clarify to the team what the role is going to be (especially if we expect new responsibilities that haven’t been part of the role in the past). And we should coach new hires on team dynamics that might otherwise motivate team members to reject the new, at least initially.
Watch for signs of rejection.
Our bodies’ immune systems are formidable. They protect us from external invaders like bacteria, viruses and toxins with an amazing early response system that jumps immediately into action. But they’re not very good at distinguishing between the harmful, like a virus, and the helpful, like a new and needed organ. The body’s natural response to a transplanted organ is to reject it. And in my case, even with all the preparation and careful tending to immunosuppressants, my new kidney started to show signs of early rejection. With my immune system in full battle mode and my white blood cells set to kill, I (the body, the host) needed an immediate intervention.
Early signs of rejection among a team can be more subtle but no less toxic. They could include open conflict between existing members of the team and the new employee, members of the team avoiding communications from the new person, members of the team not including the new hire in meetings or projects where the new hire belongs, or open criticism of the new hire.
A 2018 survey of 1,509 U.S. recruiters found that 32 percent of new-hires quit within the first 90 days of being on the job. Just as with the immune system, the natural reaction to protect the status quo can be misdirected and swift. The very forces that created the need for an outside agent can doom a new hire from the start. Cultures can be cliquey, hypercompetitive, disrespectful, dishonest and toxic.
We should work actively to build team relationships, particularly early on. We should pay close attention to how people talk to each other in team meetings, for example. We must call out toxic behavior and not make the mistake of believing that uncivil behavior goes away on its own.
People tend to mimic what they experience. The more we tolerate uncivil behavior, the more we’re likely to see it on the team. The more we model kindness and an intolerance toward trust-busting behavior, the more kindness we are likely to see on the team.