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Disappointing young 'star' might need clearer expectations

Managers at Work
Rochester Business Journal
February 1, 2013

“We hired a young new associate (right out of college) about a year ago, and unfortunately he does not seem to be living up to all the hype. Before we hired him, I conducted a thorough reference check, spoke to former employers and professors, and the message I heard was that this kid is going to be a star. But a year later, the results have been disappointing. He’s very bright but has trouble translating what he learned in school to the very real world we work in.
“He blurts out things in meetings with clients that are in open disagreement with his supervisor. He doesn’t hide the fact that he sees this position as a short-time stop before going back to get a graduate degree. We’ve tried giving him feedback, but that has not elicited the changes we were looking for. I think it’s a maturity issue. A colleague of mine has suggested that the best way to help an individual grow up is to fire him. I don’t want to do that, but we can’t continue the way we are.”
It’s easy in this situation to place all the blame for this employee’s problem on immaturity or to label him as one of those needy millennials who were given everything. It’s not a good idea to fall into that trap, says James Ramerman, co-chief executive officer and co-founder of McArdle Ramerman & Co., a leadership consulting firm in Rochester. “They’re not all the same. Let’s not box them all in.”
A lot of issues could be getting in the way here besides the generational differences. How much of this problem is an employee development issue or a question of fit for this particular job or diversity differences with the millennial generation? Understanding a little more about all these elements can make a real difference in how you handle the situation, he says.
Given that the associate is a new graduate, he needs more coaching and development than you might be accustomed to giving. “These employees need coaching and great supervision. You need to understand them, encourage them and challenge them,” he says. “They need more development because they’ve had less of it.”
Take the time, though, to analyze the job function and your own conversations with this employee. “How clear is the job—the expectations and the measurement for success in this role?” asks Beverly Flaxington, an author and behavioral consultant in Boston. If the role is too vague, she says, the employee often goes awry for lack of a good way to measure whether he or she is doing the right things.
When you say you have given this employee feedback, is there someone your organization has designated as his coach or mentor—or even someone who has taken on the role informally? That person would need to explain how the associate’s behavior is hurting his opportunities for the future, she says.
“Maybe try to appeal to his personal long-term goals and see if you can convey a WIFM (What’s in it for me?) for him.
“Also be sure the correction you are giving is very clear,” Flaxington adds. “Most times people say something like, ‘Your behavior in meetings is rude,’ but what does that mean? Explain to the person how it is rude” and what you would like to see him do differently.
Does this employee’s role match his behavioral style and ability? Many managers don’t think about this. “Be sure you have matched his behavioral style—what this person is naturally good at—with the expectations of the role. If he is analytical and you have him in a sales role, for example, he may be acting out of stress for not being in a situation that fits him. The same goes for values: Does he believe in the values of the firm?” she asks.
Your instincts about maturity may be well-founded. As Daniel Goleman notes in research on emotional intelligence, Ramerman says, students who have concentrated entirely on excellence in academics may not be as strong in their social development at this stage as others. And for some, that might mean some additional work.
“Maturity is based on self-knowledge and developing perspective,” Ramerman says. “And perspective can only come with reflection. Helping a younger person broaden and deepen their perspective has to happen with dialogue.”
If this person has been coached and mentored, it may be that he is not a good fit for the role. “While you may not want to fire him now, you do need to put him on a clear performance measurement plan,” Flaxington says. “And that includes what you expect and when, and then give him feedback on whether he has done it or not.”
Many millennials value flexibility in their work and schedules, and that can work very well as long as the leadership sets clear expectations, Ramerman says. “It’s important to be very clear about what you can be flexible about,” he says. “If you want strong performance, you can be flexible in the way people get there. Encourage them to use their creativity to accomplish the goals.”
If you and your team have coached this employee over a period of six months or so and seen very little progress, it’s possible that he’s simply not ready to grow, Ramerman says.
Again, it’s easy to place blame here on the millennial generation. Indeed, many people believe that millennials lack emotional intelligence and fail to take criticism well. However, author Jonathan Becher believes that they are generally “misunderstood and misinterpreted.”
In an article published last year in Forbes called “A Multitude of Myths about Millennials,” Becher took on some of the myths associated with millennials, citing research he found in various publications. Here are a few of the popular ones.
Myth:” Millennials don’t want to be told what to do.”
Reality: “Millennials are more willing to defer to authority than either baby boomers or Gen Xers.”
Myth: “Millennials aren’t interested in their work.”
Reality: “It isn’t that millennials aren’t motivated; it’s that they’re not motivated to do boring work.”
Myth: “Millennials want more work-life balance.”
Reality: “Millennials and Gen Xers agree at about the same level that the demands of their work interfere with their personal lives.”
Managers at Work is a monthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by phone at (585) 249-9295 or by email at (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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