Premature cognitive commitment from new staff members, or jumping to conclusions, is always a risk in onboarding. However, it plays out differently with employees and executives. This is one of the takeaways from this year’s Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2012 Annual Conference & Exposition just underway this week in Atlanta.

One risk is that new hires will jump to wrong conclusions about the organization. With new executives, the risk is that the organization will jump to the wrong conclusion about the new executives themselves.


Premature Cognitive Commitment in New Hire Onboarding


Onboarding (Photo credit: Jane Quigley)

In her talk on “New Hire Onboarding” at the SHRM conference, Amy Robinson, principal of Interchange Group, a consulting firm, said that new employees are in a “highly alert” state and jump to conclusions based on limited data.

Small things make a big impact on these new employees’ emotional takeaways and perceptions of the organization, increasing the risk of premature cognitive commitments. Because new employees are so impressionable, it’s worth the effort to make sure they hear, see and feel what you intend.

In another session, Marsha Moulton and William Sparks of the non-profit organization ACDI/VOCA highlighted onboarding as one of the main steps in empowering staff to achieve individual and organizational goals.

For them, onboarding is all about connecting people to increase their links with others, and confirming their choice of organizations to decrease their doubts about the decision they made to join. It’s the same point Robinson made in that they don’t want new employees to come to the wrong conclusions about the organization.


Premature Cognitive Commitment in Executive Onboarding

In my talk at the conference tomorrow, I will argue that the situation is exactly the opposite when it involves executives. There’s far less risk of executives jumping to the wrong conclusion about their new organizations than of their new organizations jumping to the wrong conclusion about them. Part of why it’s so hard to recover from first impressions is that people make premature cognitive commitments based on those impressions.

Great leaders generally became great by deliberately practicing their own form of leadership. Just because they are great leaders does not necessarily mean they are great at assuming leadership. The skills required to win others over are different than the skills required for inspiring and enabling once you’ve earned people’s trust. This is why new leaders must converge before they evolve, or get a handle on the corporate culture in order to determine how slow or fast they can institute changes.

New leaders must have a bias to listen and learn early on, and a bias against expressing their opinion. It’s far better for the organization to think “the jury is still out” in early days than for it to reach the wrong conclusion.

Onboarding: Leadership Crucible

Onboarding is a crucible of leadership for all involved. Yet, no one gets rewarded for succeeding in onboarding. They get rewarded for getting through the crucible, minimizing premature cognitive commitments, and earning the right to lead themselves, their teams and their organization to success over time with what Jim Collins described in his talk this morning as their own “20 mile” marches. This is why it’s so important to invest in effective onboarding for executives.

For more on this topic, read “Executive Onboarding: The Key to Accelerating Success and Reducing Risk in a New Job.”

This is a good example of step 4 of The New Leader’s PlaybookTake Control of Day One: Make a Powerful First Impression

Everything is magnified on Day One, whether it’s your first day in a new company or the day your new role is announced. Everyone is looking for hints about what you think and what you’re going to do. This is why it’s so important to seed your message by paying particular attention to all the signs, symbols, and stories you deploy, and the order in which you deploy them. Make sure people are seeing and hearing things that will lead them to believe what you want them to believe about you and about themselves in relation to the future of the organization.

Click here to read about each step in the playbook

Click here for YouTube videos highlighting each step