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

Nov 25, 2013
16 Min Read

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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