8 Ways to Successfully Onboard Your Hires Based on Optimal Distinctiveness Theory

Although it’s critical to provide a sense of community, you want to help your new hire feel comfortable being their authentic selves, and encourage them to bring their unique strengths into their roles.

October 5, 2022
Alyssa Birnbaum

For many managers, the process of onboarding a new team member includes a technicalities checklist:

  • Did the new hire receive their equipment and setup?
  • Did the new hire complete technical trainings?
  • Did the new member learn their benefits options and finalize their paperwork?

Yes, all these items are crucial to ensure a smooth transition onto your team. But during the first few weeks and months on the job, new hires solidify their impressions of their company and whether or not they intend to leave or stay. That means that it is essential to attend to their true needs from the get-go.

However – and this is where things get interesting! – people experience underlying tensions between wanting to feel included as members of their new teams, while also wanting to feel unique and valued for their differences. Marilyn Brewer (1991) describes this tension in her theory on Optimal Distinctiveness. She suggests that the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle, where people feel both included and yet still different.

This post offers suggestions that tap into each of those elements – inclusion and differentiation – so you can support your new hire to successfully integrate into your team.

How To Make New Hires Feel Included

To build a sense of community and feelings of inclusion and belonging, it’s important to cultivate a warm, welcoming environment and connect your new hire to other company members. Here are 4 suggestion to help your new hire included.

1. Assign a Buddy

The buddy system is often used to help new hires acclimate to their teams. A buddy is generally a current employee with a roughly comparable role and a friendly demeanor who becomes the new hire’s “go-to” for questions. Buddies can explain the internal dynamics of the team, how different systems or technologies work, and give anecdotes about their personal experience when they joined the team.

Buddies generally reach out to the new hire either prior to their start date or on the day they begin, and they have check-ins during the first few weeks to ensure a smooth transition and answer questions.

The buddy system helps employees connect with someone “safe” early on as they’re still learning the ropes. This system gives your new hire a level of comfort and a sense of inclusion.

2. Create Opportunities for Team Socialization

There are a variety of ways you can help your new hire socialize with your entire team, from structured team building exercises and organized happy hours to a first-day lunch and dedicated team breaks. These can happen in-person or virtually if your new hire or team members are remote.

Ideally, you don’t want to have a meeting with too many people at once - your new hire may feel like an outsider if they’re thrown into a huge-group scenario. You can also consider ways for structured break-out groups so your new hires can rotate among smaller groups of people.

Socialization allows for spontaneous connections to occur, especially when they are fun rather than work-related. Connecting members with their teammates will aid with team cohesion and collaboration down the line, so it’s crucial to make your new hires feel included early on.

3. Extend Beyond Your Team

Although it’s important to make your new hire feel included within your team, it’s also essential to help them feel integrated into the company. Schedule one-on-one coffee chats or lunches for your new hire to meet with different people across a variety of departments and teams.

By setting up these connections, you’re allowing your new hires to connect with potential mentors that can guide them, or potential peers across departments that can generate lasting  friendships.

Internal networking can lead to a host of benefits. If your new hires already have relationships with other people in your company, it makes it easier to reach out to other people to prevent conflicts, collaborate across departments, and garner support from other individuals in the company.

4. Connect To Your Company’s Mission

A final and crucial step to help your team member feel included is to connect them to your company’s mission.

When you review the company’s mission with them, don’t simply regurgitate the words. Make it conversational. For example, you can ask your new hire: What, if anything, resonates with you when you read the mission statement? You can also share why the company’s mission statement is so important to you.

This discussion can help motivate your new hire by making them feel like they are contributing to something larger than themselves - that they are an instrumental part of the collective company goal.

How To Make New Hires Feel Different

Although it’s critical to provide a sense of community, you want to help your new hire feel comfortable being their authentic selves, and encourage them to bring their unique strengths into their roles. Here are 4 tips to help your new hire feel different and appreciated for their uniqueness.

1. Learn Their Strengths

Everyone has unique strengths, and capabilities. As a leader, it’s critical that you learn about what your new hire’s strengths are and how to leverage them. It will help your new hire stay motivated, feel valued as a unique contributor, increase their productivity, and derive more satisfaction from their work.

To learn about their strengths, ask them about a time (or several times) when they performed at their best. Here are some questions to guide that conversation.

  • Think about a time when you performed at your best. What did you do?
  • Which of your behaviors lead to successful outcomes and why?
  • How did you handle obstacles?
  • Were there any points when you felt like you experienced flow, where you were totally immersed in your work and time flew by?
  • Reflecting on that occasion, what gave you the biggest sense of pride and accomplishment?

2. Align Their Strengths To Their Role

Once you’ve learned your new hire’s strengths, try to align those strengths to their job and the company’s mission.

To align their strengths, ask your new hire to think about how their strengths can be applied to their job when considering company’s needs and role responsibilities. Let them steer the conversation. This will give them a sense of ownership and compel them to bring their unique offerings to their role.

3. Encourage Speaking Up

New hires not only have unique points of view, but they often have fresh perspectives since they haven’t been enmeshed in the team. Yet it can be challenging to speak up when you’re new to the team. Ask your new hire if they have suggestions to improve the flow of the team or their work.

It’s important that you follow-up on their suggestions rather than passively listen to them. Lean into their recommendations and either try to apply them or explain why it might not be possible at this stage.

When your employees feel that you’re listening to them and applying their suggestions, they are more likely to continue speaking up. As employee voice scholar Dr. Ethan Burris suggests, “Voice is only good if action is taken. So if you speak up and nothing is done, at least our research has shown, that is worse than if you were never given that opportunity in the first place.”

Importantly, it makes employees feel like they are contributing at a personal level and that you value their opinions.

4. Appreciate Their Contributions

When your new hire accomplishes a task or does standout work, let them know that you’re proud and grateful - and highlight the specific actions that they took. In particular, if they did something out-of-the-box or deviated from the norm, highlight it.

By appreciating their unique contributions, you are encouraging them to continue stepping up and sharing their perspective. This will make them feel respected, appreciated, and valued.


This post offers suggestions to successfully welcome and integrate new hires into your team. In particular, we highlight specific ways to make your new hire feel both included in the team and differentiated in their unique contributions.


Brewer, M. B. (1991). The social self: On being the same and different at the same time. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17(5), 475-482.

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