It’s a tricky spot to be in as a leader — you have a young employee who is technically strong, showing tremendous skill and promise and, because of that, you’re eager to champion that employee’s growth and success.
There’s just one thing holding you back — that young pup employee is a bit of an entitled jerk.
Tactless when interacting with others around them, feeling entitled to skip ahead without putting in the hard work, and arrogantly confident they always know the right answer (to the degree they come across downright insubordinate). Their antics feel directly disrespectful to your authority, undermine the camaraderie of the team, and just make the workplace dynamic unnecessarily tense and frustrating.
On one hand, you want to help every direct report rise to their full potential. On the other hand, part of you wants to take this cocky direct report down a notch.
Whether it’s a Gen X-er or one of the much maligned Millennials grating your nerves, this is how to keep your cool, lead with presence, and inspire the best performance (and attitude) in this employee:
1. Identify your own hot buttons
When your direct report’s blunt directness or ‘presumptuous attitude’ rubs you the wrong way, pause and reflect on why? Try to pinpoint the threat you are feeling. Do you worry they’ll outshine you or steal your idea? Did their comment make you feel foolish or undermined in front of your team?
Look, let’s be honest here: Even the strongest, most honorable leaders have behaviors their egos react to. What button is this employee pushing in you? And can you consider the possibility that a fear or insecurity in you is simply bumping up against an inexperienced, unpracticed and unrefined side of this other person? (They’re still new at this ‘work world’ thing, remember?)
Before you instantly assume your employee is wrong and blatantly disrespecting you, consider that ‘showing respect’ may look differently to each of you.
While you may consider “showing respect” humbly deferring to the hierarchy of authority, your employee may sincerely consider “showing respect” speaking to you openly and candidly, colleague to colleague.
Assuming your direct report actually has the best intentions (just, maybe not the most tactful execution), how would you respond to that behavior if you didn’t get triggered and your hot button of inadequacy and respect had not been pushed?
2. Avoid creating a self-fulfilling prophecy
People love bonding over a ‘common enemy’ and it seems nothing bonds leaders mid-30s and older more than lamenting about millennials. So, do an integrity check and make sure you’re not looking for your younger reports to fail before they even do so, simply because you’re chalking up their awkward behavior of one or two of them as proof the whole generation is deficient.
How you decide to view an employee creates the actual dynamic of your relationship with that person.
So, look for the best in the people you lead. Put yourself in their shoes. What is their goal, their motivation, their point of view?
And most importantly — try to understand what’s it like for them being on the other side of you and your reaction to them. Might your reaction come across to them as insecurity, jealousy, arrogance … even entitlement on your end? Is that reaction diminishing their respect for you and/or making them feel defensive or threatened in the workplace? Just make sure you’re not weighing your own personal opinion or perception of the situation as the full, factual picture of what’s occurring.
3. Mentor without patronizing
No one likes feeling patronized. So, by all means, pull your direct report aside and share your experience of their offending behavior, but avoid the “You see, young pup, I’m older and wiser, so let me mold you” approach.
Instead, from a place of mutual respect, help this employee recognize the benefits of balancing both tooting their own horn and working collaboratively and cohesively with the team.
They may not even realize how their behavior comes across or how it’s working against their goals.
One colleague of mine had a young employee in her division that the entire extended management team was lobbying to terminate because of the employee’s snarky “millennial” attitude (i.e. always acting ‘put out’ by assignments, responding to direct questions with annoyed-sounding monosyllabic answers, etc.). Instead of terminating her, my colleague pulled the employee aside and asked about her behavior from a concerned point of view.
The young employee was genuinely shocked she was being perceived that way. She shared that she is a shy, introverted person and thought her responses were conveying a professional “all about business” work ethic, when actually she came across to everyone as unfriendly and straight up insubordinate. The employee, with a little coaching, made an impressive and immediate turn around in her attitude and ended up being one of the strongest members of the project team.
4. Hold the employee accountable
Overlooking a lousy or arrogant attitude in a few employees just isn’t acceptable for any company that hopes to create a healthy, inclusive culture for all of its employees.
Yes, considerate conversation about the issue is definitely the place to start (always!) … but, ultimately, holding the employee accountable for modeling the company's values is as important as them honing their technical skill sets.
Make expectations clear, as well as consequences (whether being removed from a leadership position or, if needed, ultimately let go from the company). Then make sure to follow through on providing any coaching or support promised, and give your employee a fair amount of time to practice into the new behavior you expect, as behavior does not magically change overnight.
In the overall picture of this, what we’re really talking about is psychological safety.
And while it’s essential that you, as the leader, do everything possible to keep your own behavior in alignment with best practices and your own personal integrity ... part of that task is sending a clear message that overtly negative, arrogant attitudes from one or two employees will not be left unchecked to compromise the success of the whole team.