Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 20;   May 15, 2019:

Entry Intimidation


Feeling intimidated about entering a new work situation can affect performance for both the new entrant and for the group as a whole. Four trouble patterns related to entry intimidation are inadvertent subversion, bullying, hat hanging, and defenses and sabotage.
Meerkats (Suricata suricatta), Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, South Africa

Meerkats (Suricata suricatta), Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, South Africa. Meerkats, being social animals, must also solve the entry problem. No doubt, in some cases, entry intimidation does occur. Photo (cc) Charles J. Sharp.

The term used to describe the process of joining a group is social entry. Although the term applies to joining any kind of group, people use special social entry strategies for specific situations. Social entry at work is particularly important, because the results can affect so much of the rest of our daily lives. [Brenner 2013a] [Brenner 2013b] Familiarity with a variety of entry strategies gives us the flexibility needed to adapt to new or evolving situations, and to make the entry process more effective.

Familiarity with trouble patterns associated with social entry is also helpful. Knowing how to recognize trouble patterns in social entry helps supervisors when they notice difficulties encountered by new hires; it helps new hires when they notice difficulty starting a new job; it helps new team members if they encounter difficulty finding a place in a new or existing team.

One common trouble pattern might be called entry intimidation. In this pattern, either the new entrant — or one or more members of the group itself — experiences feelings of intimidation as the new entrant and the group go about finding a place for the new entrant in the group. Entry intimidation is a particularly costly trouble pattern because it can delay the development of a new social order. In some cases, entry intimidation can provide fuel for toxic conflict, and even prevent completely the formation of a new and effective social order.

Below is a set of examples of situations that can lead to feelings of intimidation on the part of the new group member or existing members of the group. In what follows, I use the names Neal or Nan for the new entrant. The first two examples illustrate issues involving the supervisor of the work group Neal or Nan is entering. The second two examples illustrate issues more personal either to the new group member or to existing group members.

Inadvertent subversion
Well-meaning Well-meaning supervisors can
inadvertently subvert the
entry efforts of new hires
supervisors can inadvertently subvert the entry efforts of new hires by assigning to them responsibilities that offer opportunities for the new hire to engage with many existing group members, but which simultaneously cast the new hire in a role subordinate to everyone else, or worse, subordinate to the new hire's own role.
For example, one such role is collecting donations for a seasonal charity fund drive or gift drive. Although the role does compel Neal to engage with everyone, the nature of the engagement places him in a "seeking" position that can inadvertently subvert his attempts to find and consolidate a position of respect in the group.
As a supervisor, assign this kind of responsibility instead to individuals who are well respected. As a new entry, if you find yourself in this unfortunate position, recognize that explaining the nature of the error to your supervisor is unlikely to work. And questioning your new supervisor's decisions so early in your relationship is in any case unwise. You'll just have to make do, unless some special feature of your relationship with your supervisor suggests that questioning the assignment might work.
If the group harbors a bully or bullies, Nan is about to enter a problematic situation. Not only is she facing the usual risks of entry, but she must also find a way to deal with the bullying.
As a new entry, two different responses might be required. First, if the supervisor is aware of the bullying, then danger might be close at hand, because bullying — if present at all — tends to be a chronic feature of small group cultures. Even if this particular bully arrived only recently, a bully might have been present earlier. If the supervisor tolerates bullying, feeling intimidated about entry is a perfectly healthy response. Searching for an exit is even healthier.
Second, if the supervisor is unaware of the bullying, one must wonder about that. If the supervisor is a recent arrival, reporting the bullying to the supervisor might work. But if the bullying is chronic, and if the supervisor has been chronically unaware, danger is again close at hand, and searching for an exit might be the best approach.
As defined in "You Remind Me of Helen Hunt," Point Lookout for June 6, 2001, "hat hanging" happens when we identify something about our present circumstances with something from past circumstances. In entry intimidation, hat hanging can be a contributing factor when Neal identifies someone in the new group with someone whom he found intimidating in his past experience. In other words, Neal's feelings of intimidation arise from the misidentification rather than from actual present experience.
Resolving this misidentification can be difficult for everyone in the group, because it's likely that only Neal knows enough about his past experience to notice the incongruity. And it can be difficult for Neal as well, because of the nature of the hat hanging process. Neal might be completely unaware of the misidentification.
The supervisor can intervene, however, if he or she knows what to look for, at least in one case. If Neal seems intimidated by someone who has no similar effect on others, the likelihood of hat hanging by Neal is elevated. However, if Neal seems to be intimidated by someone who has had that effect on others, even the supervisor might be unable to recognize the hat hanging.
Defenses or sabotage
Upon learning that Nan will be entering the group, one or more members of the group might perceive threats to their own positions. They might take steps to protect themselves by creating obstacles to Nan's search for a place of respect within the group. These steps can range from the more passive — withholding information or failing to offer assistance — to more active forms of sabotage or even hazing.
When these lapses or actions take place, supervisors can intervene, of course, but prevention is much preferable. Supervisors can prevent these problems in advance of Nan's arrival by setting expectations. They can state clearly that they expect members of the group to take the initiative to assist Nan's smooth entry into the group. In my experience, most supervisors could do much more than they do routinely.
New entrants would do well to prepare to encounter defenses or sabotage, but not expect it. Preparations for defenses could involve seeking information from multiple sources, instead of relying on a single source who might provide incomplete or inaccurate information. Preparation for sabotage could involve making multiple copies of work products and secreting backups where they cannot easily be altered or destroyed.

Social entry is difficult enough when all involved mean well. Sadly, some people who do mean well do make mistakes, and some don't mean well at all, for whatever reason. For best results, assume that people do mean well, and learn to recognize those who don't. Go to top Top  Next issue: Newtonian Blind Alleys: I  Next Issue

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[Brenner 2013a]
Richard Brenner. "Social Entry Strategies: I," Point Lookout blog, September 18, 2013. Available here. Back
[Brenner 2013b]
Richard Brenner. "Social Entry Strategies: II," Point Lookout blog, September 25, 2013. Available here. Back

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