As I wrote the title of this post, my mind pictured someone with arms open wide standing in front of a group of people gathered behind him as I walk toward them. The phrase comes from the imagery of a flock of sheep and a shepherd welcoming a new entry.
It’s a good image because it depicts an experience all of us has had in life. We have all had times when we were not a member of a group and then became a member of that group. For some people, these experiences may bring up painful memories: memories of feeling you don’t fit it and never will, memories of feeling awkward and strange.
You know the feeling. People laugh at internal jokes and you do not understand why what was said was funny. People become energized and focused like a laser and you wonder what happened. You are in a new land where your current maps are useless.
All groups face the task of helping newcomers fit. Most of the time, this process of fitting it happens naturally. Our own mental faculties are hard at work piecing together the puzzle, figuring out the cues about what these people consider important, what they consider worth fighting for, and what they consider worthy of censure.
Sociologists call this process of adapting “socialization.” It is the natural process an individual goes through as he or she gains a sense of identity with the new group and learns the group’s norms, values, and behaviors.
Anthropologists prefer the term “enculturation,” the gradual absorption into a new culture. Culture is “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes one group or category of people from another” (Geert Hofstede). Native members of the group have had years, or even a lifetime, of mental programming, but the newcomers must fast track the process if they are to survive in the new environment.
Others prefer the term “integration,” which conveys the idea of combining parts into an integral whole. It was Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that America would become a place where the black members of our society would become an integral part of the whole we call America. I think that goal has been achieved, though there are still some in our society who for political reasons want to continue dividing us into separate conflicting groups.
I prefer the term “assimilation” when referring to organizations. Assimilation is where something is absorbed into something else. It refers to the changes a person goes through as they adapt to a new environment.
The process is natural and will happen whether or not we are aware of it. Some organizations, however, have designed intentional strategies for assimilating newcomers, because they want them to become productive members of the team as quickly as possible.
In coming posts, I will go into some of the things leaders can do to help their newcomers assimilate into the culture of the organization.
Greg Waddell provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.