5 Psychological Concepts to Improve Your Onboarding Training
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5 Psychological Concepts to Improve Your Onboarding Training

Good employees are hard to find, but they’re even harder to hold on to. A startling 20% of employee churn occurs within the first 45 days of employment. Even more alarming: nearly 33% of employees are already looking for a new job just six months after being hired. With a historically strong job market, employers now have to work harder than ever to convince employees to stay put.

Those first few months of employment are a particularly vulnerable time for the employee-employer relationship. Early missteps can erode trust and increase the chances that new hires will cut and run. That’s why it’s essential to start that relationship with a well-thought-out employee onboarding process.

Strengthen your onboarding training by understanding and reinforcing some vital psychological concepts that all employees experience during their first few months in a new job. Onboarding training is about more than just getting new hires set up with the tools they need to do their job. It’s also about creating an emotional connection and a lasting relationship with your employees so that they stick around long enough to become invested in the company.

Here are five well-established work psychology concepts that you can leverage to strengthen your onboarding training and kick off long-lasting connections with your new hires.

Reinforce the Psychological Contract

The psychological contract is the widely accepted idea that there is a set of implied, unspoken beliefs and expectations between an employer and employee. Although neither party might be consciously aware of this contract, it’s there underneath every interaction your employee has with your company. Onboarding training is your chance to establish an agreement based on mutual respect and open communication.

At its most basic, the psychological contract establishes that employees will do their work and that the company will reward them with money, recognition, and the possibility of advancement. However, there are many more layers to the contract built up over time — involving trust, integrity, and back-and-forth communication. A robust psychological contract is a base for engaged, loyal employees.

Managers are the primary builders and enforcers of this unwritten set of expectations. They are the primary way the company communicates with each employee. Ensure that managers play a large role in the onboarding process, and encourage them to establish strong relationships with new employees early on through coaching and  frequent one-on-one meetings. Establishing clear and open communication is particularly vital for remote managers, who may be the company's most significant lifeline.

Be aware of potential contract breaches, and work hard to eliminate them from the onboarding experience. Make sure all administrative tasks, like payment details and time-off agreements, are correctly set up and honored. Early on, breaking these implicit rules can destroy your new hire's trust in the company irreparably and cause them to start looking for employment elsewhere. Do the things you promised to do, and you will immediately start building a firm contract.

Erase Anxiety with Cognitive Closure

Human brains love tidy, concrete resolutions. Ambiguity makes us uneasy — like trying to order at a restaurant in a foreign country without knowing the language or social norms. We have an inherent need for firm answers, a concept psychologists call cognitive closure.

Starting a new job is a lot like traveling to a foreign country. New hires have lots of questions and an incomplete set of information. They may not know what to expect during their first day or week of work. This lack of transparency leads to anxiety and keeps new employees from being fully engaged in onboarding.

Satisfy new hires’ need for concrete answers by preparing them for every step in the onboarding process. Start with a detailed preboarding procedure that eases new hires into the onboarding workflow. Before they show up for their first day of work, make sure they have all the information they need, including where to go, what to wear, and a first day (or first week) itinerary.

Provide an onboarding to-do list with tasks that the new hire can check off as they go (checking off boxes provides enormous amounts of cognitive closure). Also, give new hires an outlet for asking questions. An onboarding buddy or mentor would work or even a dedicated discussion board.

Avoid Cognitive Overload

The first week of work is often a blur of new best practices, rules, and procedures to learn. Psychologists call this feeling of information overwhelm cognitive overload. When you’re presented with too much information at once, your brain can’t prioritize which information to absorb, and so it ignores everything, retaining nothing. Cognitive overload is counter-productive and makes new hires feel intimidated and incompetent.

You can avoid overloading your new hires by elongating the orientation timeline. Instead of cramming everything into a single week, scaffold your training process. Give employees only essential information during the first few days, then add layers of complexity later on. Intersperse learning with cultural activities and team building to give those busy brains a break. An effective onboarding training should take at least a month and sometimes up to three months.

Give new employees smaller amounts of information more frequently by breaking up elearning courses into bite-size chunks. Instead of forcing new employees to take a three-hour course where they may retain very little, have them take multiple 10-15 minute microlearning courses that focus tightly on a single concept or subject.

Finally, create information libraries that employees can refer back to if they forget a particular process or policy. An internal knowledge base acts as a form of institutional memory that eases some of the individual’s cognitive load.

Give Employees a Sense of Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is the feeling employees have when they believe they can take risks, ask questions, and give feedback without fear of being ashamed, embarrassed, or worried about their career. Many business psychologists argue that psychological safety is a crucial trait of high-performing teams because it allows members to think creatively and take calculated risks without fear of retribution if they make a mistake.

New hires inherently feel insecure about their position in a company. They aren’t yet familiar with the company culture or confident about their role. But studies show that they will learn more effectively if they feel psychologically secure.

You can’t fake psychological safety; you need to foster it throughout your entire organization. You do this by creating a workspace full of diverse backgrounds and opinions, where team members can learn by doing and freely give and receive constructive feedback.

Create an onboarding process that makes employees feel safe and confident about their place in the company. Give new employees the space to learn on the job and fail in a safe space. Continue that ethos as you move through further employee training and development.

One way to do this is to build an emphasis on human connections during the onboarding process. Assign onboarding buddies whose only duty is to help the new hire feel comfortable and welcomed. Incorporate frequent one-on-ones with managers where the new hires can ask questions or troubleshoot issues.

Encourage Self-Expression

Employees want to be treated like individuals, not worker drones. Self-expression, the assurance that employees’ personal opinions and ideas are valid and valued, is vital to new hires’ happiness and security. The concept is related to psychological safety but also to the idea of autonomy. When you encourage self-expression, you promote the concept of individual identity over an organizational one. Employees don’t want to feel like robots, hired to simply perform assigned tasks. They want to feel like valued contributors.

And it matters to them a lot. Research shows that organizations that encourage self-expression experience a 33% boost in retention rates during that first year.  That same study found that employees who felt like their employers recognized and validated their views were more productive and worked better with their colleagues.

Instead of just imposing your company’s norms and expectations on new employees, encourage them to contribute their unique perspectives, talents, and values. Arrange onboarding training sessions dedicated to hearing newcomers’ voices and gathering their opinions. Ask for their feedback on the onboarding process.

At Eduflow, we ask all new hires to record themselves walking through our product’s sign-up and setup process; then, we ask them to write up their thoughts on the experience and any suggestions for improvement. We take these suggestions seriously and have even implemented several of them into our process.

Onboarding Training Is the Start of a Long Relationship

All of the concepts we’ve discussed here can help you build a better relationship with your new employees, hopefully encouraging them to stay longer and make more significant contributions to the company. But it doesn’t end there. As you move past the onboarding stage and into a longer-term relationship with your employees, continue to apply these same concepts to areas like employee training, one-on-ones, and team projects.

Eduflow can help you simplify and standardize your onboarding process with our automated training flows. Sign up for a demo to see how we can make onboarding easier and help you concentrate on building long-lasting employee relationships.

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