— May 7, 2019
Seasoned workers often complain about the unrealistic expectations and mistaken judgments of young, inexperienced employees. Yet organizations need junior people, beginners who aren’t aware of, or even interested in, everything their predecessors have done for the last 10 years.
But you can ease junior employees’ entry, help them be more productive, and encourage their receptivity to senior colleagues’ intentions and concerns. Here are some ways to start young staffers off on the right foot and keep them on track.
Point Out the Way
Explain everything. Junior people need context desperately. If they think something is meaningless, they’ll tune out. Worse, they’ll fill in their own rationale about why things happen the way they do. Plus, when their beliefs aren’t accurate, there can be other adjacent topics that they misunderstand. Explain how and why senior people are valuable and significant, why their roles matter, and how their talents have served — or even saved — the organization. Note that most senior colleagues can help them navigate if the juniors take the time to get to know them.
Be specific about the progress you expect to see from them over the next 30, 60, 90, and/or 120 days. This allows them to assess how they’re doing even before you give them feedback. Use these milestone dates as a gauge for the increasing levels of responsibility and autonomy you plan to give them; they’ll manage their own expectations and are less likely to lose patience with their beginner assignments.
Talk It All Over
Encourage juniors to take notes. This is usually a big topic when I meet with groups of young people who are starting out in professional workplaces. We discuss how a person looks simultaneously prepared and engaged when they have a notebook and pen, and how they can use their notes: to ask their boss questions, remind their boss and others of commitments, and capture their ideas both to review later and to make choices about what actions to take.
Give them a participation protocol for large group meetings. Depending on your organization’s norms, for the first few weeks, you can ask juniors to save their questions and comments until you debrief afterwards. You’ll provide context and protect them from seeming ignorant or uncaring or offending anyone. Make it clear that the “training wheels” period won’t be long, and that you’re not trying to silence them, but are keeping them safe until they’re familiar with potential pitfalls and soft spots.
Stand by Them
Meet with juniors constantly! Lots of quick, focused check-ins have more impact than occasional longer sessions. Frequent meetings let you answer questions promptly and get them back on track if they’re starting to stray. Most young people are willing to figure things out on their own with very little direction, but they won’t necessarily recognize if they’re on an unproductive path.
If you don’t give timely guidance, and if they don’t recognize that they’re off course, they may believe they’re completely accurate and expect others to share that assessment. Tweak or revise their perceptions promptly to reduce compounded errors and subsequent distress. Don’t just correct them, though — acknowledge their effort and progress and explain why your desired approach is more effective.
Interestingly, juniors do want to know and use proven approaches. They may try to improve what everyone else thinks is fine, but if your guidance makes sense to them, they will take every correction and run with it.C
Connect with Them
Get a clear picture of what they’re thinking, don’t understand, or still need to know by asking lots of questions — and truly listening to their answers. Don’t dismiss them (“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that; it’s never a problem”) or undercut their sense of themselves (“What on earth did you say that for? That’s a dumb way to get the information you need”).
Try probing questions like:
- What seemed confusing in that meeting?
- Does anything seem out of whack in the way we’re pursuing this project?
- Can you see anything that could work better, and do you have any ideas about that?
- Which of the things you’ve been working on has been of real interest to you vs. the things you know you need to do, but just don’t love?
- Where would you like to get more involved, if you had the chance?
Help them find mentors and partners. Recommend colleagues for them to meet or collaborate with, and make comprehensive introductions to smooth the way: “Paul, I want you to meet Rebecca because she has a wealth of knowledge on this subject and is a terrific teacher. Rebecca, Paul has shown a lot of proficiency in these mechanics and is ready for the next step. I think you’ll find him a diligent worker who’s eager to learn.”
If you stay close and behave generously to junior team members, you’ll see how well they fit in and which assignments and colleagues they find challenging. You’ll also limit the likelihood of being surprised by some executive complaining that your new recruit just disrupted a carefully tuned task force or committed some other rookie move. Don’t promise your juniors giant steps you can’t fulfill, but do give them access and control as soon as they seem ready for it. They’ll remember every slip, but also every triumph — as well as who helped them along the way.