How Newcomers Can Influence Established Groups


· Groups resist criticism—especially from newcomers.

Picture this: you’ve just started a new job and you’re sat nervously in your first meeting. You look around, still trying to match names to faces. Early on a problem is discussed you know all about from a previous job. Putting aside nerves, you hop right in and start to explain just how it was dealt with at that previous company.

When you finish speaking everyone just looks at you. For a few seconds the only sound is the air-conditioning and people fidgeting with their pens. Then a red-haired woman—clearly a company veteran—recovers and makes one or two non-committal remarks. The meeting moves straight on to other business leaving you wondering what you did wrong.

Later on the red-haired woman returns to the problem on which you weighed in earlier. She repeats your suggestion almost exactly. Everyone begins nodding and smiling at her. Someone says “Good point. Yes!”

No one looks at you.

Hostility to newcomers

Although this scenario might come straight from a sitcom like The Office, it’s not that fanciful. Recent psychological research has established that just this unreasoning hostility to newcomers clearly exists in groups, even when their suggestions are sound. Psychologist Matthew J. Hornsey and colleagues have confirmed the effect as well as examining how newcomers can worm their way into a group’s affections and begin to generate influence (Hornsey et al., 2007).

Firstly, though, they asked whether groups are really this hostile when newcomers, as opposed to old-timers, make critical remarks. Hornsey and colleagues asked 187 health professionals at a hospital to make judgements in circumstances similar to those described above. One group of participants were lead to believe their hospital was being criticised by a newcomer who had worked there 3 weeks, while another group thought it was an established old-timer of 18 years. In each case the criticisms presented to participants were identical, the only difference was their apparent source.

The results were clear. Compared with old-timers, the health professionals:

  • thought newcomers provided less constructive criticism,
  • agreed less with newcomers’ suggestions,
  • were more negative about their criticisms.

This certainly supports our intuitive understanding that it can be difficult for newcomers to criticise their new group.

Generating influence

Next Hornsey and colleagues wanted to see whether there was any way of reducing these negative reactions to newcomers’ criticisms. To do this they recruited 217 members of an online gaming community who were all interested in a particular game. They were then shown an extract purportedly taken from a chat site that criticised their game and asked to comment on whether they agreed with the critic and whether the criticisms were justified.

To test whether the anti-newcomer bias could be lessened, the participants were split into four groups and the identity of the critic was presented in four different ways.

  • A newcomer who distances himself from another group to which he used to belong.
  • A newcomer who embraces another group to which he used to belong.
  • An old-timer who distances himself from another group to which he used to belong.
  • An old-timer who embraces another group to which he used to belong.

So sometimes the critic was shunning their membership of an old group and sometimes they were embracing it.

Once again, confirming the previous findings, online community members were none too impressed when criticism of ‘their’ game came from a newcomer. Again, the newcomer aroused more negativity than old-timers despite making exactly the same criticisms. But the researchers did find that this negativity could be reduced if the newcomer shunned a group of which they used to be a member, then their criticisms were more likely to be viewed as legitimate. Hornsey and colleagues’ results also showed that old-timers benefited from this effect as well.

This finding makes sense when you think about how a newcomer’s group identity is perceived by other members of the group. Whether consciously or not, people want others to value their group as much as they do. When newcomers distance themselves from an old group, it increases their perceived allegiance to the current group. If the criticism comes from a member of the group perceived as committed, this helps to cushion the critical blow.

Toe the line

What the psychological research tells us, then, is that influencing groups to change as a newcomer is not easy. Sources of criticism or agents of change commonly face increased negativity and outright rejection. However beautifully the change is packaged, people will quickly perceive the implicit criticism of the status quo.

The temptation when joining a new group is to try and make a big splash, to impress others with our critical perceptions and new ideas. On the contrary, what the present research suggests is that toeing the line in the first instance is often the best long-term strategy. Groups are hostile to criticism from newcomers and are likely to resist, dismiss or ignore it—unless you can prove your loyalty.

One way of emphasising allegiance to a new group is by creating psychological distance from an old group. But even this might not work all the time since criticising an old group can signal a disloyal nature. Consequently newcomers to a group who want to gain influence and promote change should tread very carefully until they are well-established. Unfortunately sometimes being right just isn’t enough.

About the author

Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 9 July 2009

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