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New Employees - 27 April 2010

Humans are the dominant species on the planet, but we’re certainly not the most enduring. Whilst we’ve been around for 500,000 years, ants have existed for over 100 million. But just like humans, ants are among the most social animals on Earth. .

It’d be impossible for a queen ant to teach a worker ant everything it needs to know. Queen ants live for up to 100 years whereas worker ants have a lifespan of only a few weeks, so if a queen ant tried to pass on all the information she’s acquired during her life, the worker ants would spend more time learning and less time doing the stuff that makes them so productive.

That’s a mistake people commit in the workplace.

Whenever a new employee joins an organisation, they’re sent on a long induction program, they’re put through intensive orientation, they get given thick training manuals, and the result is an overwhelmed new worker. We bombard them with information thinking that’s what they need to get started. Sure, all of that helps, but what really makes the biggest difference for a new employee can be summarised by one word: relationships. And that’s what ants have mastered.

Three ways that ants use relationships to get ahead include: (1) Whenever an ant is hurt, it lets off a strong scent that alerts other members of the colony to come and help; (2) Most animals use imitation to learn new behaviours, but not ants. Each new worker ant is allocated a personal tutor who uses a tandem approach to teach it to find food; (3) Ants understand their division of labour and they don’t deviate from what each of them is tasked to do in the colony. All three of those elements are about relationships.

A respected study was conducted at Babson College in the US on the factors that get new employees up-to-speed quickly. They discovered that – just like ants – it is a relational approach that makes the biggest difference for new workers, rather than an informational one. In particular, it’s about changing your mindset from, “What does my newcomer need to know?” to the more effective, “Who does my newcomer need to know?” Here’s how:

- In training programs, allow enough time for socialising and relationship-building

- Invite newcomers to unrelated meetings so they get to know the influencers

- Where possible, choose face-to-face training rather than online learning

- In the early stages of employment, allocate a buddy rather than a mentor

- Check to make sure the newcomer is building a network of meaningful connections

- Encourage newcomers to ask questions of their colleagues

- Remind longer-term employees to be approachable and helpful

- Clarify the responsibilities of everyone with whom the newcomer will be interacting

When I was a kid, I would test the scent theory on ants by crushing one to see what would happen. The other ants would always follow the trail of the scent to return and help the friend in need. Likewise, a lot of the information in an organisation isn’t located in a training manual. It’s found in the minds of its employees. All you have to do is establish trails that link your newcomer to as many coworkers as possible that can help in times of need.

 

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