People holding cogs. Credit: fotolia

As a member of a team of nine peer supporters that supports a robust volunteer program, rich learning can happen when volunteers and new peer supporters join the team.

The consensus of team members is, “We can’t do it without our volunteers!” Both volunteers and new hires bring broader perspectives, enthusiasm, and the uncomfortable but important question, “Do we have to do it this way?” Sometimes it takes the presence of a new person to bring what Zen Buddhism might call beginner’s mind. New staff offer a completely new way of seeing and responding to a challenging situation. Volunteers and peer supporters, in other words, are sometimes able to think outside the box because they don’t even know that the box exists.

Along with new ways of viewing how we serve our peers, new peer supporters and volunteers, henceforth referred to as newcomers, also bring a depth of enthusiasm and dedication that comes from a bone-deep desire to make life better for their peers. A recent newcomer put it this way. “I feel like someone called me to be here. This is my work. This is me.” Current staff have recalled their first days as peer supporters, looking for ways to use their gifts in the arts, for example, or for meeting the unique needs of teenagers, or for transforming drab rooms into vibrant healing spaces.

With the world of opportunities presented by newcomers, struggles present themselves too as part of the package. One issue that has occurred more than once is the need for teaching “Workplace 101.” Some newcomers have not worked before. Others have not worked for a long time and may be out of practice concerning what it takes to be in the role of an employee. It’s surprising that so little direct instruction is available on the topic of workplace survival. One gets the basics in school, with the emphasis on punctual attendance, deadlines, and adhering to a dress code, but I have found that newcomers often need much more. There are many implicit rules and hidden expectations around workplace behavior. We have found that it pays to make these rules explicit because not everyone knows them.

The workplace is about the work.

In my role as unofficial “newcomer’s coach” I have started by stating this seemingly obvious fact. That means that one does not ask for excessive favors, such as for food to be frequently brought to them from the canteen. I tell them that personal business should be done on their own time. I point out that most workplace conversation centers around tasks and goals; more than once I have had to say that work isn’t a social situation where there are pizza parties every week. I had a newcomer who wanted to go around giving people handmade gifts every week or so, and who gave out excessive compliments. Hidden rules again: Giving gifts in workplaces is acceptable at Christmas or for a birthday, but seems strange at other times. And compliments in workplaces are relatively rare and reserved for times when a person or group does an especially good job beyond the call of duty.

There are even implicit rules in a workplace about greeting people. I have said, “If a person doesn’t look too busy, it’s fine to say good-morning and ask how they are. But if they’re on the phone or in the middle of a task, let it go.” Sometimes I have not even realized the existence of an implicit workplace rule until someone unintentionally breaks it.

Expect correction.

One of the more challenging aspects of a workplace is that one must expect criticism and, as much as possible, avoid becoming defensive. This is a difficult skill to learn. Nobody pleases their boss all the time, but correction does not feel good and the tendency is to either wilt in the face of it or to defend and then attack. I coach newcomers by saying, “If you did something wrong, apologize briefly. Then have a conversation about how to fix it and move forward.” But this requires living with some immediate emotional discomfort. I tell newcomers that too. And I tell them that I have had to do it myself.

Know the parameters of the role.

Sometimes I have had to give direct instruction around the boundaries of the peer support role. A newcomer once used every conversation she had as an opportunity to express and promote her faith. This led to a rich conversation about how peer supporters do not advocate for any specific religion or recovery path, but instead we support self-determination.

These implicit rules, along with the more explicit procedures such as signing in and out, keeping track of breaks, and documenting the work accomplished, form a more complex body of knowledge than most people realize. No wonder the new peer supporter may feel overwhelmed. When our newcomers struggle, I note that learning to become a skilled practitioner is a long and challenging process. Only half in jest, I tell others that after almost five years of practicing peer support, I am almost ready to begin.

Fortunately, the dedication of newcomers to the profession and their desire to use whatever special skills and talents they bring means that most of them are highly coachable. My responsibility is to encourage them to use what brought them to us in the first place, while at the same time being clear about expectations. If a newcomer is struggling, I remind the person that the goal is always to learn and grow and that we all have the capacity for that. “Be willing to live with not knowing,” I urge them. “Expect to learn something new every day. Above all, stay curious!”

Five years ago, I was a new peer supporter myself. Now I work with newcomers to bring them up to speed. And while I impart knowledge about Workplace 101, I am in a co-learning relationship. It is quite probable that in our conversations they will teach me something too.