David Olney

4 July, 2023


Have you ever hired someone who performed brilliantly during the recruiting process, who looked more excited than nervous on their first day, only to have them leave within six months of starting with you? As they were leaving, did they tell you that they couldn’t settle into the terrific opportunity you afforded them, because they don’t know what they really want, or where they want to be?


There is a small chance that they really weren’t suited to the job they accepted with you, but I want you to reflect on the following: you wrote a very detailed job description and they met the majority of your criteria; they were really excited to apply and to get an interview; you were really positive after you interviewed them; you were really satisfied on the day you offered them a job and they accepted; and both of you looked happy, excited, and just a bit nervous on their first day. I am going to suggest that, when all of this is true, people don’t easily change their mind about the job they have just started. No one wants to go back on the job market only months after getting an apparently positive outcome. Something pushed them away from the job they were excited enough to accept, and put you back in the position of having lost another talented person.


I contend that most people who leave a new job only a few months after starting do so for three consistent and predictable reasons: they didn’t feel safe to grow into the role, they couldn’t work out what they were responsible for, and you didn’t provide them with reasons to believe that you would take responsibility for preparing them to succeed. In short, you didn’t provide them with a bubble of safety and responsibility, and, as a consequence, you put them under an unbearable cognitive burden.


The vast majority of work-places do a decent job of making sure that their people are physically safe, but progressively less and less organisations provide enough thought and effort to making sure that new people feel safe and supported to succeed. New people need a structured way to learn new material and systems, regular opportunities to ask beginner questions and discuss foundational concepts, and safe to fail opportunities to do things they have never done before.


Historically, new people were mentored and/or attached to experienced people for defined periods of time, so they could observe, learn, and practice their future work activities. In the terms of Situated Learning, they started as a novice and learned from experts. We still see this in trades and in the medical world, but it has largely disappeared from the white-collar world since the advent of neo-liberal economics.


Physical safety does not equate with psychological safety. If you haven’t defined how, and over what time frame, a new person is going to be supported to succeed, how do they know when they are doing well enough to feel secure in their new job? If the only level of expertise they can compare themselves to is your hard-won level of expertise, then there is a very good chance that they are going to feel inadequate, and to begin to look for an exit strategy before you question why they aren’t progressing quickly enough.


Between COVID-19, tough economic circumstances, AI and automation, and a greater risk of global cataclysm than at any point since the Berlin Wall came down, more people are more anxious today than they have been in recent decades. You might not want to have to take responsibility for mitigating anxiety that started outside of your workplace, but the cost of providing a safe to succeed environment is significantly less than consistent staffing problems and productivity interruptions. Highly resilient people are in short supply, while environmental stressors are in abundance, so you get to choose whether to adapt to reality, or wait for the unreal candidate who isn’t adversely affected by a sense of insecurity at work.


How many times have you said: “we are a high performing organisation, and if you work hard you will get up to speed.” This sentence probably sounds reasonable to someone who is already competent and confident, but what does it say to someone who is new to your environment and work? It says: “we have no formal structure to train you, we have no formal mentoring system, and we don’t have clear guidelines and timelines for you to judge your progress against.” Under these circumstances, a new person has no clear sense of what they need to do (in what time frame) to succeed, and your lack of clarity sounds like a deliberate strategy to find out how they respond under extreme and unnecessary stress.


If you want new people to take responsibility for their progress, then you need to create responsible systems and processes for scaffolding their path to success. Despite all of the rhetoric to the contrary, outside of elite soldiering and small to medium sized entrepreneurial business, risk taking is uncommon, unwise, and unsupported.


If you are tired of losing the talented people you have hired within months for reasons that are generally ambiguous, then please ask yourself if you have created a bubble of safety and responsibility to prepare them for success. If new people know it is safe to develop their beginner mind, know what they are responsible for doing, and believe that you have taken responsibility for preparing them to succeed, they will rapidly grow into the bubble of safety and responsibility you have provided for them. Once they have grown into the bubble of safety and responsibility, they will have the competence and confidence to be a high performing member of your organisation, and will be an exemplar for the next new person who starts with your organisation. Each time you prepare a new person to succeed, it will make it more likely that the next new person will also succeed.


It takes time, resources, and effort to create a bubble of safety and responsibility for your new employees, but once you get it right it benefits everyone in your organisation. If you don’t know where to start, or want to speed up the process of ensuring that your new hires stay and succeed, please reach out to me for help. People thrive in a safe and responsible environment, and I love helping people and organisations to thrive.


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