Onboarding the Human Side: Part 1 – Behavior Norms

Onboarding – what comes to mind when you hear the word?  Many times, onboarding is either reserved for new employees, or it only refers to explaining the technical scope of a project and ensuring that team members have the technical skills they need for their immediate job.  What about the human side of onboarding?  Commonly, I will hear a team leader say, ‘I recruit good, experienced people so onboarding really isn’t necessary.’  That can sometimes hold true, and you (luckily) might get a team that can immediately get started.  More often, the team’s progress is inconsistent or incomplete, as everyone ‘gets on board’ at their own pace.  Results will also be delayed in delivery as the team waits until the last person is on board.

Onboarding on the human side provides an opportunity to accelerate the team’s maturation and performance.  It also enables team members to build relationships, and trust, with each other from the beginning.  Rather than watch the team fumble as they get their feet under themselves, utilize onboarding as a springboard from which to launch the project team, work, and results.

Two of the major components of human onboarding are behavior norms and communication skills.  Simply put, behavior norms are the specific behavior expectations of team members, both what is wanted and what is not wanted.  This is sometimes referred to as cultural onboarding or the ‘rules of the game’ for this team.  Imagine if you were recruiting a new baseball team, made up of athletes from other sports.  You wouldn’t assume that they all knew how to play baseball.   For their onboarding, in addition to covering the equipment, you would make sure that they understood the behavior rules for playing baseball.  For example – you must run the bases in order (counter-clockwise) and don’t yell at the umpire or you’ll likely get thrown out of the game.

It works the same with a new team.  You can’t assume that past behaviors will be acceptable for today.  And, furthermore, what was acceptable on other projects may not carry onto future projects.  The question is:  for this team’s work and results, what behaviors are needed?  For example, it may have been OK in the past for team members to be texting on their phones during team meetings.  For today’s project, the goal may be to have 20-minute team meetings.  Therefore, the old behavior and rules won’t work because people must be present and attentive to get through the meeting’s agenda in only 20 minutes.

For maximum effectiveness, the behavior norms must be described in behavioral terms and must be specific and observable.  Saying that a behavior norm is to ‘treat team members respectfully’ is not helpful.  But, saying that the behavior norms for treating team members respectfully include:  listening to the team member, acknowledge their perspective and comments, not yelling at another team member, delivering commitments to other team members or proactively re-working the commitment, etc, are easily followed because they are specific, observable and can be self-monitored.

Many of you may be thinking – duh!  Isn’t this always expected?  My experience is that it isn’t.  Everyone comes to your team with a different background and set of experiences; mischief comes in when part of the team expects certain norms and part of the team does not.  It is the gap between these expectations that causes misunderstandings, and even unresolved rifts between team members.  Can you imagine if one team member came from a norm of everyone yelling at each other, while the rest of the team did not come from that norm?  It is a recipe for creating issues within the team.  And, every unresolved issue steals productivity and impacts the delivery of results.

One of my IT colleagues is responsible for all of the professional services projects at her company.  On every project, she sets up formal onboarding for her internal team and the customer team on the first day of the project.  This onboarding isn’t about the technical work or the project scope; it is about the human join-up and behavior norms.  She asks, upfront, ‘How are we going to work together and treat each other as we go through this project?’ – identifying the behavior norms upfront.  She consistently has fewer customer issues, earlier/faster resolution of issues that do occur, and more satisfied team members and customers.

Onboarding your team with behavior norms upfront, invests time early and pays dividends all along the project.  Making the upfront onboarding investment will build relationships, trust, and a behavioral framework for your team that will minimize the mischief so that superior results can be produced.

Let us know how we can support you in identifying and implementing your team behavior norms.

Check in with us next month for Onboarding the Human Side

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