Why Remaining Neutral Is Best for the New Guy

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth" by Chris Hadfield. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why should you remain neutral in crucial situations? How does neutrality improve your life?

Chris Hadfield’s memoir An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth expresses important lessons that astronauts learn from space. One of these lessons is to stay as neutral as possible if you’re new to a team or community.

Here’s why remaining neutral is the better choice for those in new situations.

When You’re a Novice, Aim to Have a Neutral Influence

Hadfield’s early experiences as a new astronaut provided him with insights on how best to approach a team endeavor when you’re a novice. According to Hadfield, when people are new to a team endeavor, it’s often their goal to prove their skills and show everything they can do. However, he claims that when you’re a novice, you should instead consider remaining neutral on the project. You should aim to neither wreck nor greatly improve the project. Hadfield describes two benefits of this “be neutral” approach and explains why it’s better than a “prove your skills” approach.

  • Benefit 1: You’ll learn more. When you’re less focused on proving yourself, you can instead focus on observing and learning from experienced teammates.
  • Benefit 2: You won’t sabotage the endeavor. When you’re new to something, you’re more likely to make mistakes. By aiming to have a neutral influence instead of a positive one, you’re reducing the risk that your lack of experience will jeopardize the endeavor.

Hadfield says he learned this lesson during his first space flight, when he and his crewmates on Atlantis were guests in the Russian Space Station, Mir. Because Mir was small and the Russian cosmonauts already had their way of doing things there, Hadfield realized that the best thing he could do as a new astronaut was to stay out of the way and complete his duties carefully, without drawing attention.

Applying Hadfield’s “Be Neutral” Advice to Your Life on Earth

In his book, Hadfield provides many examples of how he and his colleagues aimed to have a neutral influence as novice astronauts. Let’s return to the two benefits of remaining neutral and explore how you can experience these benefits on Earth.

Benefit 1: You’ll learn more. When you’re a novice, how can you best observe and learn from your experienced teammates? Let’s examine two different strategies:

Benefit 2: You won’t sabotage the endeavor. How can you ensure your influence is neutral so you don’t sabotage your team’s endeavor? Consider playing a supportive, behind-the-scenes role rather than a leading role. When you’re in a behind-the-scenes role, you create conditions to support more experienced members and you respond to their requests for support instead of charting your own path forward and risking you’ll make a grave error. Research on high-performing teams reveals that the following behind-the-scenes actions support teams’ productivity, cohesion, and success:

  • Build community among your teammates. For instance, initiate non-work-related chats during breaks. When teams take time for non-work-related chats, they build better relationships. This makes collaboration easier.
  • Keep your team on track during meetings. For example, gather and send out agenda items in advance, or take meeting minutes. The most effective teams run efficient, productive meetings that have a focused agenda.
  • Build a culture of sharing genuine appreciation. For example, closely observe your teammates’ achievements and publicly thank them for their contributions. High-performing teams have a culture of appreciating each other’s work.
Why Remaining Neutral Is Best for the New Guy

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Here's what you'll find in our full An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth summary:

  • Chris Hadfield's experience of becoming an astronaut
  • The five life lessons Hadfield learned in his role as an astronaut
  • Why you should find joy in everyday life rather than looking forward to milestones

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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