7 things no one tells you when you start a new job

May 19, 2014


Stuck moment: Wow, being the new face in the office is sure nerve-wracking. What does that acronym mean again? Where do I get lunch? Wait, who am I supposed to talk to about passwords and log-ins? I want to impress everyone, but right now, it’s all I can do to remember the name of the guy sitting next to me.

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When we start a new job — no matter how excited we are, or how many successes we’ve already chalked up — there’s always a period when we feel at sea. There’s too much information, and yet too little. We’re painfully aware of being the new kid on the block, but hesitant to say when things don’t make sense — we don’t want to raise any eyebrows.

How can we possibly get up to speed and appear confidently competent at the same time?

Try this: Instead of anticipating and projecting, stay in the moment. Focus on the task at hand. If you attend to the building blocks — learning processes, getting to know your team — everything else will fall in place, bit by bit. You’ll build confidence and muffle the little voice that says, What if I screw up?

For an expert perspective on how to do that, we talked to Tara Goodfellow of Athena Educational Consultants, Inc., a career coach and resume expert with two decades of experience. She offers some excellent advice.

“People are curious about the new person,” Tara says. “Don’t just sit at your computer and do your job. Recognize that, although you might be nervous and feeling overwhelmed, you need to be able to speak to folks, and that comes with practice.”

It’s critical to make the effort, even if it doesn’t come naturally. Start by introducing yourself, and make a habit of saying hello. Then, after a week or two, ask a new colleague to lunch or coffee.

“It will only help you,” she says. “We want to do business with people that are likable and enjoyable to be around. You’re spending so many hours at work, you want to make it the most positive environment you can.”

“An eagerness to fit in is natural,” Tara says, “But you’re coming in with a lot of unknowns. Learn the dynamics. Be patient. Be friendly — but you don’t need to be everybody’s best friend.”

When personal and professional boundaries get blurred before you’ve had a chance to build trust and know your colleagues, there can be ramifications.

“Let’s say that you and a colleague meet for dinner every week to build a friendship, and that friendships ends. You still have to interact with that person, and that creates strain at work.”

She adds: “You want people to like you, but your focus should be that they like you because you do a great job.”

Navigating the social dynamics of the workplace can be tricky, even for the most experienced of us. Unstuck’s “Guide to good work relationships” offers 21 tips to help you start on the right foot.

“In more senior level positions, the biggest mistake is not learning enough about the new process before you make changes,” Tara says. “You’re trying to show your strengths by making changes without realizing why it’s been that way for so long.”

You risk antagonizing your new colleagues if you insist that there’s a better way before you’ve given the old way a chance. And you don’t know how a change at one level can cause dominos to fall at another.

Instead, marry your confidence with respect for existing routines, dynamics, and processes. They exist for a reason; learn what they are before you declare the need for improvement.

“Aim for quiet confidence,” Tara says. “Your results will be much stronger.”

Nerves often lead to faux pas — that’s human. Think about the last time you felt knock-kneed and freaked out. What did you do?

“You might blurt things out when anxiety is high,” Tara says. “Or your tendency might be to try to fit in. Or you might go introverted.”

The great thing is that, if you know your tendency, you can find ways to work around it.

“For example, if it’s a group setting and you’re not comfortable asking questions initially, wait until the session is over. Then pull the manager aside, or send an email after to get answers or to seek clarification.”

Check out our infographic, which identifies four major tendencies and gives tips to temper them.

Questioning or asking for help can make us feel vulnerable, but we put ourselves at a disadvantage if we let fear bite our tongue.

“The first week or two, they’re throwing a lot of info at you. The brain can’t process the sheer volume being thrown at you so quickly,” Tara says. “But one thing that sets you up for success is an understanding of your job — which means having the confidence to ask questions.”

You might ask for more training, or a different training method: “A lot of times, training and development has decreased because of budget cuts, or people are so busy doing the jobs of two people that their schedules don’t allow for much one-on-one training.,” she says. “Bring it to their attention. And you can say, ‘I don’t seem to be processing it this way. Can you show me another way?’”

And remember: “You were chosen because they have confidence in you.”

“Anxiety ramps up when you’re first starting a job,” says Tara. “It’s normal: the physiological response, hands shaking, not sleeping. Part of it’s exciting; part of it is nerve-wracking.”

You can balance your nerves by controlling the unknowns: “If it’s a new route to work, figure that out first, so you’re not 20 minutes late due to traffic. Dress professionally. Do things that will lessen your anxiety.”

And, if you’ve really got the jitters, friends can help you quiet the self-doubt. Call someone the evening before your first day for a mood-lifting talk.

When you’re new, your real job is to learn your job. Focus on that and be patient with the process. After all, unless you’re a new CEO with a multi-million dollar signing bonus, you’re off the hook for the first month or two. You don’t need to be a leader or change maker — just a good student, a hard-worker, and a friendly colleague.

There’s a kind of freedom in that: You’re free to ask for help. You’re free to make mistakes. Enjoy being the new kid — it will prepare you for what comes next.

DOWNLOAD THIS: A printable infographic to help you start your new job on the right track

Tara Goodfellow manages Athena Educational Consultants, a national career coaching firm that serves clients from ages 15–65+. She has spent close to 20 years working in higher education, including as a CFO and a career development instructor. She was recently featured in a New York Times article on what new college grads need to know when they enter the workforce.

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