Tandem Motion

Sink or Swim: Should Companies Let Employees Figure It Out on Their Own?

I was standing in a Starbucks sharing with an executive my frustrations with how a company was choosing to treat their employees. New joiners out of undergrad or an MBA program would show up to orientation nervous and excited for their first day of work. Without even an understanding of what the company expected from them or how it would be measured or enforced, they were handed a laptop and a badge and left to figure out for themselves how to meaningfully contribute. I cared about the employee experience and I cared about the company meeting business objectives through their people. The executive interrupted me to matter-of-factly state that this "problem" I was passionately working to reform was a part of the sink-or-swim culture that the executive team had intentionally created.

I was stunned. I couldn’t wrap my head around why a company would invest the money and resources to hire people and then leave them to fend for themselves. Is this weeding-out process really effective? Where should companies draw the line between spoon-feeding and negligence? Should employees be held wholly responsible for defining their career path? What was the company’s responsibility in helping the employee develop and succeed within the organization? I wanted to learn more.

A sink-or-swim approach is one in which an organization chooses to purposefully provide limited or no support for people entering new roles. The intention is to identify those who are able to succeed in their roles without guidance from the organization. Those who are unable to meet performance requirements, which may or may not have been articulated, are typically terminated. 

Risks to the sink-or-swim approach

One of the risks to the sink or swim approach is the potential for employees to cause new problems because of a lack of experience or knowhow, such as the failure to understand business rules and inadvertently circumventing processes and procedures designed to protect the business. By creating a sink-or-swim culture, organizations run the risk of negatively impacting the careers of high-potentials, losing talent, and weakening career progression. The associated costs go beyond recruiting and exit costs to the disruption of performance when people leave an organization.

You’re already in a sink-or-swim environment

Whether a person sinks or swims depends on the type of strategy they deploy. Sinkers are typically in crisis and, at the other end of the spectrum, swimmers demonstrate resilience and control. In the middle of the spectrum, we have floaters—people who are trying to keep their head above the water by simply surviving the day. The key to becoming a swimmer is making choices that will lead to sustainable high performance. When a person takes on stretch opportunities, activities out of their comfort zone that are attainable with their current skills, it energizes the individual and increases productivity. Progress is made sustainable by continuously seeking out and assessing opportunities that will foster attainable growth. Therefore, this isn’t a one time stretch assignment, it’s a lifestyle.

Some strategies for moving to the swimmers side of the spectrum:

  • Increase your fit in the company culture by spending time with coworkers, which will increase your confidence, and provide an opportunity to learn how to be successful

  • Seek out mentoring-type relationships where individuals you admire can offer guidance

  • Find a coworker or two you can safely rely on to help when you feel stuck

  • Help the people you work with assimilate into the organization

Yearlong assimilations for new hires help protect the company, new hires, and teams. Since new hires have a significant impact on team dynamics and performance, helping new hires assimilate is beneficial to the organization. With all the transitions that come with starting a new job, the speed and proficiency at which an employee is performing is largely determined by the services provided by the organization to reduce the stressors of a new job. In a survey administered to 588 executives, 60% reported it took six months to fully assimilate and have an impact in their new roles.

If you want your people to be successful, help them assimilate. Below are some tactical ways you can help new joiners assimilate into the organization:

  • Invite the person to join critical business meetings so the individual can gain familiarity of the business

  • Provide background on the team in which the person will be working and organize a session where the new person can get to know their team members

  • Supply the new person with organizational charts and give a briefing on key stakeholders

  • Administer a cultural assessment so the individual is able to understand any differences in their preferences and the organization's culture

  • Host a session on the strategy and objectives of the business

It’s in the best interest of the company to invest in the assimilation process of people in new roles to gain the highest return on invested capital and to reduce turnover costs.

What are companies optimizing for?

At the end of the day, companies need to ask themselves, “What are we optimizing for?” If the answer is to meet the business strategy, experience indicates that a sink-or-swim approach reduces the ability of employees to quickly and effectively contribute to business objectives. By providing assimilation support, individuals in new roles will be able to focus on developing personal strategies to achieve business objectives. Therefore, companies can increase the impact and productivity of their workforce by strategically assimilating employees into new roles to maximize productivity and meet business objectives. Imagine what companies could achieve if they helped more employees become swimmers.

Cara Griffith

Cara Griffith

Cara’s expertise spans the HR space in talent strategy, leadership alignment, governance, HR operation model development, and change management. Cara has collaborated with Fortune Global 500 companies in the consumer goods, financial services, medical devices, oil and gas, pharmaceutical, technology, and energy industries to transform how organizations think about accomplishing business strategy objectives by empowering their talent.