How To Dissolve the Arrogance of the Young Hot-Shot on Your Team

There is no expert as authoritative – in his own mind – as a college kid fresh out of school. Nobody is more sure that he is right about everything, and that he knows the exact right thing to do. Even if that makes the more experienced people on the project roll their eyes in disbelief.

But you have to work with them anyway.

Sometimes, the world delivers its own real-world lessons to take these kids (of any age) off their high horses. But other times, teaching them the errors of their ways takes active mentoring from an experienced boss or project leader. Herein, I collected anecdotal wisdom from the latter category, to help project managers (and others in leadership positions) best deal with their own Problem Children.

Don’t hire them.

By “hot shot,” I mean a talented youngster whose arrogance is not yet deserved, and who is so sure of his innate superiority that he doesn’t acknowledge what other people bring to the table. It’s rare for even a brilliant new worker to know as much as he thinks he does. (I use he deliberately; in my experience, women deal with these issues differently. But you should pay attention to the person in front of you, not make gender-based generalizations.)

The best way to avoid dealing with the Hot Shots is to keep them off your team. (Duh.) It means not hiring an otherwise-talented person in the first place, because transforming the team member into a “team fit” is such an exhausting, time-consuming process – when it’s possible at all. It’s one thing to be a project leader; it’s another to be a surrogate parent.

But that means knowing how to identify the hot shots among your prospective job candidates. For Molly Bakewell Chamberlin, president of Embassy Global PR, the red flag is, “They tend to focus on what they feel our company can do for them, not what they can offer to us. As if it was some sort of miracle that the company has survived as long as it has, before the candidate arrived.”

“They also inform me of their desire to assume top-level responsibilities and even, what their daily duties are preferred not to be, including expressed intentions to be sent on global travel and given C-level authority,” Bakewell Chamberlin adds. “It is a genuine sense of entitlement in its purest forms.”

Debatably: Haze them.

There’s a long history of organizations giving frequent reminders to full-of-themselves rookies that they are at the lowest position on the ladder. I wrote about one instance of this in an essay on Software Development and the Pink Pony Backpack, in which I contemplated the need for deliberate professional internships and apprenticeship programs.

I personally don’t like hazing: I see it as corporate-sanctioned bullying that creates a culture of one-upmanship. However, its long history demonstrates that sending the new kid off for a bucket of white-striped paint serves some kind of emotional (if not team-bonding and pecking-order) need. It may be a tacit shunning practice, in which those who break a society’s rules are ignored until they adapt.

There are better options, I think , which respect the hot shot’s talent while teaching him the important take-away: You’re not as cool as you think you are. Learn to listen to more experienced people.

Remind them that you’re the boss.

Sometimes, the easiest way to deal with the “attitude problem” is to address it head-on. My friend Brenda told a new team member, “I know you know more than I do and I encourage your input. But I’m your boss here because I have more experience than you and have been around the block many times.” She adds, “They were strangely silent after that statement.”

This is all a matter of setting expectations, points out Aaron McDaniel, author of The Young Professional’s Guide to the Working World. No course in college helps young people understand that careers are marathons, not sprints. “Set the expectation that consistent results earn you responsibility, recognition, and a voice; it is not just handed to you.”

Yet you don’t want to lose the hot shot’s energy and enthusiasm. In your one-on-one discussions – and these should be frequent – give new team members a sense that what they do matters; this empowers them to work hard. “The expectations talk is key,” he says.

In some fields, we have outside forces telling us that we are Not All That. A baseball player, however great he was in the minor leagues, goes 0-for-17 in the majors. A programmer learns that her code doesn’t work after all. Those jobs deliver the ego-recalibration themselves.

It’s more difficult in other professions where there are less metrics-based success charts. Any design-oriented job, for instance, such as architecture, has no external right or wrong answer (well, unless the building falls down, but I mean “designing a stupid kitchen”). It’d be easy for the hot shot to continue to think he’s awesome even though everyone around him rolls their eyes.

Put yourself in their ill-fitting shoes.

The expectation-setting goes in both directions. As an older and more mature manager, you’re dealing with a different generation.

There strong evidence that young people are indeed different on the whole from those who graduated from college 20 or even just 10 years ago, says Alfred Poor, author of 7 Success Secrets That Every College Student Needs to Know! They reach emotionally maturity much later. “They won’t take responsibility for their decisions or actions, and are quick to turn to a surrogate – such as a parent – to intercede on their behalf,” Poor says. They lack basic career skills, such as a strong work ethic, verbal and written communication skills, leadership skills, and contributing as part of a team. “The number one reason that they lose their jobs is due to attendance issues; they have trouble showing up on time and staying until the bell rings,” Poor adds.

So when you deal with your personal Hot Shot problem, consider that he is part of a larger community. “Part of the message is resetting expectations, and part of the message is giving them simple strategies that help them stand out among their peers,” Poor says. “Managers can help by being very clear about what’s expected, and by following the traditional advice of ‘praise in public but criticize in private.’”

Yes, they need to learn basic skills such as over-delivering, not handing off problems (either up or down the org chart), making everyone’s jobs easier if you can, making the workplace a pleasant place to be, and observing as much as they can so that they can become more valuable to their employers. Keep in mind that it isn’t that they are failing to deliver on these taken-for-granted rules. They may not have encountered them before.

Let them learn the consequences of failure. Offer them opportunities to do so.

“Nothing is so humbling as knowing that a disaster of your own making is, in fact, of your own making,” said one once-upon-a-time hot shot. “The hard part for organizations is letting them be learning experiences.”

There’s a reason that young scientists wash test tubes, beginning chefs spend months chopping vegetables, and newbie artists grind paint. The accomplished college graduates need to learn the basics of their craft so well that they can do them unthinkingly, and they need to appreciate their tools. Plus, less obviously: It’s better to fail when the mistake isn’t catastrophic. Better to ruin one batch of mirapoix than an entire restaurant-full of patrons.

You have to let people fail – and learn responsibility for it. Says Bill Connolly, author of Funny Business: Build Your Soft Skills Through Comedy, “For me, only real world failure was able to bring me down to Earth and force me to recognize that I had a hell of a lot left to learn in the realm of both business and life.”

Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.~ John F, Kennedy, Jr.

In other words: Give the hot shot a baptism by fire. Assign a project (or a clearly defined set of tasks in the larger project) that requires him to work with difficult people, with many moving parts. Ideally, choose something with metrics that show whether the goals were met. It’s a lot easier to offer criticism based on external criteria (“What you delivered isn’t as fast as we put in the design spec”) than on perceptual values (“This is boring”).

Let him wander on it and do it to his own idea of wonderfulness (in his own mind). Make sure he knows that, on completion, the task will be reviewed by the rest of the team. Then watch what happens, doing your best to keep your own hands off. The hot shot will sink or swim. Glaring problems will become evident – including to him.

It’s important (to your sanity if not his) to help him fail quickly. Don’t leave someone drowning, where he has no idea how to get out of his own way. One lesson you want him to learn is I need to ask for help from people who know more than I do, so be ready to offer it once he recognizes it’s necessary.

When you see the failure coming, you have to let it happen (and do your best to have a quick solution to fix the mess). Then, advises McDaniel, make sure the hot-shot isn’t oblivious to the fact that he made a mistake, and wait for them to ask for advice. “If they are too cool to ask for advice, I ask if they want my advice so they don’t fail the next time; I don’t just proactively tell them without their permission,” he says. Along with the advice, make yourself open to the team member as a resource explaining, “I may be older and think differently, but my experience could be pretty helpful to their career success.”

Actively mentor the hot shot

Mentoring is a good idea in any career path, but it’s especially important here. Marian Thier, founder and partner of leadership coaching company Listening Impact, offers several useful suggestions:

  • Set up weekly meetings with the new person to review situations that have occurred during the week to surface both positive and negative situations: what happened, why might it have happened, and options going forward.
  • Provide structured work assignments with clear goals, guidelines, and outcomes, and monitor them consistently and with intelligent feedback.
  • Pair with someone just a bit older with longer tenure to help the new hire learn how best to function within the organizational culture.
  •  If available, enroll the new person in courses that fit the job: HR fundamentals, communication skills, conflict management, sales training, etc.
  • Remember the rule: Success comes from giving 20 times more positive feedback than corrective. The new person will eventually perform as needed when gentled towards beneficial and productive behaviors.
  • Try to remember what it was like to be the newbie — in most cases, little has changed. New people want to make an impression, be heard, and succeed.

It isn’t only the current generation that has a hard time accepting the wisdom of its elders. “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around,” wrote Mark Twain. “But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

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  • Youngun

    Wow this is the worst advice I’ve ever heard. Paragraphs of agist, anti-millenial diatribes aside, don’t hire young people who MIGHT be overly confident? (Based on what measure I might ask) If you do hire them, HAZE THEM or set them up for failure? Excuse me, but this is some horrible bosses crap. Please, nobody listen to this person. And thank your lucky stars you’re not Ester’s coworker. Is her management style “Asshole”? Did anyone read this before it was posted?

    • Youngun: If I were the snarky sort of person, I’d say that you proved your own point by apparently not reading what was written. The article discusses _whether_ you should haze the hot shot; it doesn’t say you _should_. It offers suggestions for how to identify job prospects whose “confidence” gets in the way of their ability to learn.

      Fortunately for you, I am a kind and gentle soul.

      But I will stick to my guns on the point that a manager _does_ need to let someone stand on their own — and fall on their face, too. Because _that’s how we learn_, at the best of times. Ideally a newbie (in whatever realm) learns from other people’s mistakes, but in the case of a hot shot — someone who is a legend in his own mind — by definition the individual is too busy _being right_ to pay attention to the people around him. Who might have, oh, 20 years of experience.

      • Youngun

        An individual “too busy being right to pay attention”.. oh such as yourself? The fact that this article even MENTIONS hazing or setting your employees up for failure as an option is just outrageous. If someone is confident – great! If they can back that confidence up on the job – great! If they can’t back that up, then they fail. And they learn. BUT it’s THEIR failure. What you three commenters fail to understand is that it’s not the managers job to make sure their employees fail – it’s their job to make sure their employees SUCCEED. Otherwise, what the heck are you doing for your company? Why are you wasting your company’s time and money actively ensuring that your employees aren’t doing their jobs?

      • diggerydoo

        Esther, please choose not to get offended with what I am going to say. But, I agree with Youngun. Your article struck me as a bad work place environment. A place where the boss even thinks of hazing or leaving the young “hotshot” to fail is and alway will be a BAD work environment.

        I think you are trying to cater to someone out there who is dealing with a young arrogant hotshot. I am guessing that you have dealt with him or her. But, the majority of young workers are NOT like this. And even those who are, this is the complete opposite managerial style than should be employed.

        I am a manager and have a couple “hot shots” working under me. Here is what I do: compliment their work, give them tasks that I know they can achieve, use their talents to edify the work we are doing, and go to bat for them for raises (and even moving up into other jobs). Essentially, when they do good, it makes me look good and I reap the benefits.

        Mostly, I think your article come across as a scared manager who is scared of being replaced. In most good organizations that will never happen…that is unless you have to resign or are fired because of accusations that you hazed or set up a young worker to fail. Good luck with your career and next time write something more cheerful. Merry Christmas!

    • Peter Varhol

      Youngun: Wrong. Failure is the best tool for learning. If you have not seriously failed in a job situation, I feel sorry for you. It means you’re not pushing yourself, or you have had others bail you out. Either way, it means that you’re not moving forward in your life, and in your career.
      I have failed more times than I care to remember. I am certainly not holding myself up as a role model (that is laughable), but I’ve done okay. If you’re afraid of failing, you’re afraid of succeeding.

      • Youngun

        Peter: You’re missing the point. Failure is a learning experience, sure. But actively setting your employees up to fail? What kind of management exercise is that? Not only are you sabotaging your employees, you’re sabotaging your company. That advice is ABSOLUTELY wrong.

    • Karma

      The measure is experience and the claims of agist are borrring. Youngun, did you read the article before you posted? And thank your lucky stars we are taking you to task on your comments – you might learn something. But I doubt it.

      • Youngun

        Yep! I read it. Disagree with it and don’t see what your issue is with my comment. You also bore me, so there.

    • Mickey Logan

      It seems you didn’t bother to read your own work, or you would have caught the grammatical and spelling errors. You couldn’t even be bothered to get the author’s name right (and how is it you are on a first name basis with her?) – and display a significant cultural ignorance in the process.
      Clearly you are the type of prospective employee this article is talking about.

      • HAT

        Wow!!!! He does of need to be on a first name basis with an overly confident journalist that is a sadomasicism. It’s something that is rewening this country. I would take all of my money somewhere else if I were surrounded by sadomasicsts in by business place. The only unfortunate thing about running away from terrible people is that you leave these terrible people to run businesses into the ground and have billions of dollars waisted on bailouts. It’s a nation full of idiocracy and everyone pointing their fingers at everyone. When will people learn to work together, guiding each other; insteaded of tearing each other apart due to insuficient foundations. I believe this point of view of the journalist is very sadomasicism, and redundent for a society unless the society needs a therapy session. Also I do not know one Business University that would suggest setting people up for failure. It’s controlling and overall unhelpful for everyone, including the person of authority, because instead of focusing on their own job their are focusing on how the other person is doing everything. Guidelines and helpful critics are what you want. It might be more work for the person in the authority position, BUT THATS WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN PUT IN THAT POSITION FOR. Sink or swim it’s your call.

        Please email me back

        I am not caring too much for my grammar as the journalist that wrote this artical did not pay too much attention to her grammer and she is a journalist with such a correct view on how things in the workplace work. Get a degree in management or at least take some management classes before you become an expert in something you have no idea about.

  • Alfred Poor

    Great article, Esther. (And I’d say that even if you hadn’t quoted me!) Study after study show that recent graduates have not been given enough opportunities to fail, starting with skinned knees right through college projects.
    One problem with your suggestion of letting them fail on a project at work is that they may not learn what you expect from the experience. On the whole (no generality can ever cover all individuals), managers report that young employees don’t take personal responsibility for the results of their actions and decisions. And they have a hair-trigger for quitting their job for something else if they don’t feel that they get what they want quickly enough, or if the work is too difficult or demanding. Given the fact that the average replacement cost for an entry level worker is about $20,000, the engagement and retention of young workers are major issues in the workplace.

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  • Roosevelt P

    Ouch… this post gives me… that ill feeling… Majority of the
    times the “Hot Shots” or the “Newbies” don’t know or aware of what is
    expected of them. For example, if a company asks them to build a
    software but does not have a clear set of guidelines or have an approval
    process then if the hot shot ends up implementing a library utilizing whatever level of experience he has then you can’t blame him for not asking.

    Next, in a company…
    we always have those people in charge who are quite outdated. Surely,
    they have the knowledge and experience but might lack the practical
    experience of the best things out there. For example, if the manager is
    still boasting about Perl but clearly when PHP or Ruby is the best for
    most solutions nowadays… there’s bound to be issues.

    This Hot Shot is just too good for you! Admit it… if a Hot Shot is so arrogant or sure of himself… then chances are he doesn’t even want to work for you. He probably wants to start his own business or possibly take your job! So, the best thing you can do is test his rigor and skill. Put him on a big project, see how he performs. If he kicks ass, promote him but if he fails then the failure alone will either teach him or will reveal to you whether he is just a immature child that really has no business in your company.

    A Hot Shot + An Arrogant Boss = Problems! The reality is the boss also needs to adjust as much as the hot shot needs to adjust. So, if you have a hot shot who is so sure of himself and at the same time you have a boss who is too adamant that his/her experience is too good for the hot shot’s curiosity… then I don’t see anything good coming out of it.

    Long story short, identify the things that usually stir up conflicts and create a set of legal documents that everyone must abide by. This will ensure that everyone is doing what they are supposed to do. This is why things like ISO9001 Certifications were created!

    • I almost added a section about the project manager needing to keep her own ego in check, because sometimes the brash newbie sees a situation with new eyes. It’s easy for all of us to become blind to “the way we’ve always done it,” for good and ill.

      But even when that’s the case, there’s a difference in presentation. A confident team member with a bright idea can — and should — go to the boss and say, “I notice we’ve been doing things _this way_; have you ever looked at changing it? Here’s some recent data suggesting it might be worth considering.” A hot shot says, “You’re doing it wrong, bozos.”

      In other words, part of what a newbie needs to learn is the corporate culture, and how to be diplomatic.

      I wholeheartedly agree with you that everyone on the team needs clear instruction — not just the newbies! That’s a different discussion though… no?

      Legal documents, though? I raise my eyebrow at that. It’s hard enough to get people to read the documentation for the software they use every day. How much do you expect people to read the lessons in How We Behave, especially since those business policies are so often ignored.

      • Roosevelt P

        True… getting people to read stuff is not that simple. However, having a workflow of some kind can simplify that process. Most of the companies don’t even have a clear workflow in set… let alone employing a good platform to walk them through. So, you will see most companies still having communication issues or things are brewing up between employees due the lack of communication, etc… People still use things like Outlook for Project Management or Team communication. Outlook was created 15 years ago and not too much as changed since then. So, perhaps it’s time to ditch outlook and employ a better tool with good workflow etc… Sharepoint/JIRA would be a good start. It does push you a little to the micro-management zone but not so much that the employees don’t have creative freedom. In my team we employed the JIRA platform to keep everyone in
        check. And part of the workflow is Code review. Basically before a
        release is pushed out a Team Lead has to run a Code Compare tool to
        review what changed and flag any new libraries that gets added. And
        depending on the complexity of the issue a meeting can be requested or
        the lead will get the heat if something does got wrong :P… We designed
        the system where the lead gets the heat… because they are experienced, won’t leave the company
        and hopefully won’t break down crying ;).

    • a

      Ability to build your own business and being a good engineer are two different things, you surely know that.

    • Youngun

      Yes. Everyone please listen to Roosevelt P.

  • Peter Varhol

    Liked it. I know people as you describe, and also know dedicated and wonderful young workers. You evaluate people as individuals. Loved the “don’t hire them”, but we get paid the big bucks (relatively speaking) to make judgments that should pay off.
    About hazing. I was a Boy Scout troop leader, back in the day, and sent my share of tenderfoots (tenderfeet?), off to find left-handed smoke shifters. It was harmless. But too often hazing is harmful and malicious, and has no place in a job situation.
    Really loved the let them fail. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve failed, and what I’ve learned from it. If they haven’t failed, they haven’t learned.

  • doctor_house_md

    This is more of a rant than anything…

    At the root of this might be how to deal with an arrogant, self-entitled generation of millennials? I don’t really know, they rarely evoke pity from me, the hardest part is that while knowing they have delusions relating to their place, position or value in reality, they rarely seem to pay a price or are punished for their misconceptions, which is part of the problem. It starts to become a tangled web when we artificially punish them by trying to compensate for a lack of natural negative consequences that should be occurring on their own.

    This then causes us to reevalutate of what crime we’re know they’re guilty and why reality isn’t self-correcting them. It might have to do with virtual realities and social media molding them according to a different set of rules, teaching them lessons that reward self-perpetuating narcissism in a Pavlovian way that rarely, if ever, asks them to experience a meaningful submissive position for any significant length of time or performing/reaching goals in such an environment.

    So, perhaps the answer is that they need to experience a certain kind or part of reality. I imagine it would have to be an intense experience somehow to shock or compensate for the passing of what would be years and years of natural time. I wonder if there’s ever been an example of a millennial successfully having their psychology/personality rehabilitated, after being exposed to certain realities and separated from virtuality? Such a miracle would give me hope.

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  • Mickey Logan

    All good advice, but I have found the first strategy to be the best — just don’t hire them. There are plenty of nice young people who are not overeducated and overprivileged; I’ll take one of them any day over a brilliant little snot. On the whole, though, I’d sooner get an older, proven person.

  • MiddleAgedUn

    Agreed with the letting them fail scenario. I don’t think it means letting them fail so that everything comes crashing down type of scenario. But I do repeatedly see those who insist on doing it “this way” even though I know it won’t work. IF it won’t affect anything major I let it proceed. When it comes back to to bite them two things happen, we review the process AND they have to go back and do it the right way. However, because I deal with processing of large amounts of money and legal guidelines there’s little room for rogue hotshot who thinks they don’t have to listen.

    I hired a crew of two highly experienced industry veterans and two greenies. How it worked out was the experienced ones thought that none of the meetings, information or guidelines applied to them and they were constantly being called on the carpet for some pretty serious issues. One of them ended up leaving because she couldn’t handle it. The other is currently in a crash and burn situation. He has become so offensive to his co-workers, is so out of touch with expectations and so arrogant with me as his boss that I’ve decided to put us all out of his misery and am seeking his replacement. Of course we’ve had a number of discussions, I even asked him if he want to work here and he was given the opportunity to seek employment elsewhere. He said he was happy and wanted to stay. However, he’s just digging his head in the sand.

    The point I’m getting at is arrogance comes in all forms and ages. Totally agreed also that new hires do need to learn about the corporate culture. They also have a role in their learning curve. If someone has NO questions ever, that a huge indicator to start investigating. The reason why is you have no idea of what this person is up to and they could be doing everything wrong based on (incorrect) assumptions. I can’t tell yu how many times I’ve given instructions, they go off and start, I come around to review progress and it was all contrary to what they were told.

    As for Youngun, I think you’re only focusing on snippets of the article and are not taking in the overall context. And I know you’re going to take this the wrong way, but that’s one of the many reasons why people like myself and the author of the article are in the position we’re in.

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