A few months ago, several TechRepublic members posted comments to a column I wrote about the need for managers to be open to suggestions from aggressive young employees. One posting in particular that caught my eye was from an obviously young IT pro who asked how he could convert his “fool” of a manager to his more enlightened way of thinking.

Of course, this posting drew nearly immediate response from some of our more veteran members, who advised their young peer to perhaps rethink his brash approach to the generation gap at work and rebuild a few bridges. This seemed like pretty good advice, but I found the young reader’s posting interesting enough for a follow-up phone call.

The story I heard described a young professional who had made a couple of substantial mistakes in adjusting to a new work environment, and a boss who is making some even bigger missteps in handling a challenging new employee. And the manager doesn’t have the built-in excuse of being just a kid.

How much more threatening can you get?
Let me start off by saying that the young IT pro I spoke to—he asked that his name remain confidential because of his ongoing conflict with his manager—is pretty much a case study in how to annoy a crusty old pro who came up the hard way. At the time of our conversation, the young IT pro was “almost 20” and had gotten into IT work for the government immediately following an internship. He got the internship through connections he made while working on a local government contract with his father’s janitorial services company.

The young pro described his duties as splitting time between user support and intranet development. He told me one of his ongoing frustrations is that his push to move to a Cold Fusion (translation: hip) intranet solution has fallen on deaf ears. And although he admits to probably making a few brash misstatements early on in his relationship with his new boss, he has taken to referring to his manager as a “hermit,” which the young pro said is the manager’s common appellation in the office.

OK, glass half full/half empty time. Either:

You’ve got a really headstrong kid here who just doesn’t know how things work in the real world and gets flustered when anybody has to say “no” to him.

You’ve got a really bright kid here who may not know how to get his points across very well but probably can add some serious value to the team, if in no other way than by highlighting wrinkles that need to be ironed out.

You guessed it—both these assessments of this problematic work relationship are probably accurate. There’s no doubt that a kid like this can drive you crazy as a manager, not only because they always seem to be in your hair but also because you instinctively feel a little threatened by someone who challenges your ideas. But you have to manage through it; that’s your job.

Have any ideas for our young pro?

The TechRepublic member with whom I spoke for this article told me he is eager to hear pointers from other managers on how to better cope with his office generation gap. Post a comment here and help him out.

Find out what your young employees really need, instead of what they want
One of the most telling comments the young IT pro made during our 30-minute conversation was that he’s tried to discuss his management style concerns with his boss, but he says, “It’s hard to word how to tell your boss how to do his job.”

Like I said, a case study in annoyance.

The fact of the matter is that young pros have absolutely no business trying to tell their bosses how to do their jobs, because until they’ve managed a team, they have no idea what they are talking about. Period.

However, young professionals definitely need to tell their boss what they need to be more effective in their own jobs. The catch is that inexperienced pros typically have a hard time drawing logical lines between effective local innovation and sweeping change that’s just not practical or even welcome.

Here’s a trick I’ve always found successful: The next time a young employee comes to you with a proposal to switch platforms or trash the SOP, ask them at least 10 questions designed to boil their main concerns down to a couple features or tactics. Do a lot of listening and almost no talking until the end of the conversation, when you’ll probably be able to help the young pro define some action items that he or she will need to follow up on.

This approach does three great things:

  • Gives the young pro the assurance that someone is listening to his ideas, which is often what he really wants anyway
  • Makes him think through his ideas in a series of steps
  • Provides you with a nice laboratory for evaluating the kid’s idea, which may be worthwhile, after all

Of course, if a young pro keeps pushing you on some crazy notion, you may just have to send him off on an ROI analysis on that move to Cold Fusion. But I’ve found that’s usually not necessary if you’re just willing to listen and give the young staffer a basic level of respect.

How it can go wrong
This give-and-take clearly is not happening in the office where the young IT pro I spoke to is working. In fact, the situation has deteriorated so far, he said, that his suggestions or questions to his boss often are met with a blunt announcement that the manager just doesn’t feel like talking to him at the moment. About 80 percent of the time, the boss doesn’t give him any feedback on suggestions he makes. The young staffer’s assessment of his boss: “He’s got a good life, a good job, and a pretty decent salary, and I just think he doesn’t want things to change.”

The young pro says he’s now leery of challenging the “hermit” on any of his decisions. “I’ve learned not to ask for justification, ‘cause then he gets really angry,” he said. “I’ve just learned to ignore it, as bad as it sounds.…It’s been so long, a year, that it seems that things would have gotten better, but they haven’t.”

This is obviously no fun for anybody, even the manager, unless he really is an incorrigible hermit, which (believe it or not, young IT pros out there) is hardly ever the case. The young pro I spoke to is looking to move on to another job, and he says he’s learned a few lessons from this experience. Unfortunately, most of them center on better interview techniques and job selection, not how to work with a manager more effectively. That’s not the takeaway a young professional should have from a first work experience.

Got a management question?

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