First impressions count, and anyone starting a new job in a new company will feel the stakes of those first impressions acutely. Newbies cannot rely on competence alone to establish themselves — how we manage our entry and relationships from the off is paramount. And there are a lot of newbies out there; the pool of workers making career shifts is larger than ever, and in the U.S., people stay with a single employer for just over four years.

The biggest challenge for career switchers is how they handle new interpersonal relationships at work, according to Professor Joseph Harder, who’s been teaching the course “Establishing Yourself at Work” since 2008. After all, most professions require some degree of teamwork, and the success of organizations is determined in part by how well people gel. Harder has some words of wisdom for those in new roles.

Balance Initiative and Boundaries

When starting a new gig, we want to prove that we can perform, going above and beyond the scope of our role. Showing initiative and energy is important, but Harder warns that we should not step on people’s toes. Workplaces have pre-established roles, and overstepping the mark could backfire. So make sure the scope of your job is crystal clear, he says, and spend time interacting with new colleagues to establish their responsibilities and the boundaries.

Reframe the Inevitable Conflict

Conflict is inevitable. In our quest for success, we are often more competitive than collaborative, but organizational performance demands the reverse. When dealing with difficult co-workers, Harder advises that we focus on our interests rather than positions — for example, stress what we want to achieve rather than what we refuse to do. Reframing the conflict as joint problem-solving, rather than an antagonistic situation, leads to more integrated solutions.

Manage Up

Harder also stresses the need to consciously work with our boss to perform well, drawing on insight from a classic Harvard Business Review article by John Gabarro and John Kotter. Upon entry to a new company, employees should make an effort to understand the boss’ communication preferences — both frequency and mode. You need to evidence how you are contributing and making progress, but in a way (and as often) as your supervisor prefers.  

Interview the Job

Of course, jobs are a two-way street. Companies place much emphasis on cultural fit these days, so it’s important to work out whether a new role or organization suits you. The best way to do this, Harder says, is to converse with and analyze people in positions you aspire to. Ask yourself: Are they leading lives I want to lead? If the answer is no, there’s no harm in moving on to find a better fit.

Prepare to Network

A new job or company offers the potential for you to expand an invaluable network. But many people find networking cringe-worthy, so Harder sets out simple strategies for effective networking. For instance, approach larger groups to avoid the risk of disturbing a private conversation. Understanding cultural norms is also important — in China, custom dictates we greet the oldest people first. And Harder recommends being prepared to kick things off with an elevator pitch, or a short summary of your calling in life.

Make the Time for Goals

Above all, it’s important to develop skills and habits of self-reflection. Research shows that people who write down their goals are far more effective at achieving them than those who merely ponder them, for example. Amid busy schedules, it can be difficult to find the time for this. Harder recommends blocking out an hour in the calendar on a Friday, time for uninterrupted reflection and goal-setting. Or, for more sporadic thinkers, 10 minutes a day may be more effective, he says.

Learning from the strategies set out above is key to hitting the ground running in a new job or company and learning skills that will better prepare you to become successful not just in your next job, but throughout your career.


About the Expert

Joseph W. Harder

Adjunct Associate Professor

Harder’s research interests encompass leadership, organizational change and reward systems. In particular he studies procedural justice in organizations, the effects of perceived injustice on individual performance, perceptions and effects of leadership, and pay-for performance systems; his dissertation topic was “Pay and Performance in Professional Sports.” 

Active in Executive Education as well as the MBA program, he has taught all over the world. Prior to joining the Darden faculty, Harder taught at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Santa Clara University. 

He is a passionate baseball fan and has attended 11 San Francisco Giants fantasy camps. 

B.S., Bethel College; MBA, Santa Clara University; Ph.D., Stanford University