Questioning the Work Ethic of New Hires? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I read your last blog Not Sure How to Address Burnout? with interest. I work in consulting with one of the big five consulting firms. We hire go-getters and work them hard. The competition is fierce and only the most driven get promoted. The rewards are, shall I say, significant—but I won’t lie, the workload is intense. We never pretend otherwise.

We hire kids straight out of the best business schools because we know they’re the brightest and are used to brutally hard work. Yet, in the last few years, I have noticed a lot more complaining about workload. There seems to be an expectation among our newbies that they should get to have lives outside of work. WTH?

Frankly, that just isn’t the way it works. I keep referring them back to what was shared with them before they signed on:  There is quite literally—I mean, in writing—the expectation set that, at least for the first couple of years with us, people should expect to not be able to do much other than work. I don’t know how we could be more explicit.

I find this very tiresome. What happened to paying your dues? What happened to sucking it up and devoting oneself to high performance? What happened to dedication? I know I should be more empathetic, but when I try to empathize I always go back to feeling resentful. The voice in my head says, “Well, I worked like a dog for umpteen years, I figured it out, I never whined like a big baby, which is why I make the big bucks and get to boss your sorry ass around.” I know that attitude is not getting me anywhere, but I am not sure what to do with it.

Any insight around this?



Dear Exasperated,

If you found my blog, you must have an interest in leadership—which is good, because ultimately it is your job to figure out how to lead these young people. Your long-term success and the continuation of the big bucks, as you say, depends on it.

At the risk of offending you, may I point out that you sound like every boomer and Gen Xer who complains about millennials and Gen Zers? To be fair, you sound like every member of every generation who has reached middle age and complains about “kids nowadays.” You probably have trouble getting your head around their music, their fashions, and the way they use social media. And I can just hear you rant on the topic of gender politics. But that’s okay. It is only human.

Let’s take a look at your industry. Like high finance, medicine, and the law, many people were attracted to your kind of work back in the day because of the promise of status, money, and material success. Most of the millennials I know today are attracted to professions that are likely to afford them some stability and a shot at achieving or sustaining what you and I once thought of as middle class, let alone the opportunity to build generational wealth. The specter of student loans is big, dark, and chilling. That is how radically the world has changed.

The generations you now manage are also much more interested in meaningful work, personal fulfillment, and life/work balance, possibly because they witnessed their parents work like dogs and take very little pleasure in life. Just to provide some clarity about what younger people today don’t want, envision someone watching their dad devote thirty-five years to paying down the mortgage and trying to put something away for the kids’ college tuition only to see him drop dead a week after retiring. It’s a bracing cautionary experience.

These generations have also grown up with constant one-upmanship and unrealistic expectations set by the fairytale lives they see on social media. By the time they arrive on your doorstep, they’ve been under absurd amounts of pressure since middle school. If you are exasperated by their behavior, imagine what it must feel like to them to be judged and found wanting at every turn.

You say they are complaining. To whom, I wonder? About what? Did you never complain when you were in their shoes? I’ll bet you did. And I’ll bet that if your superiors heard about it, they ignored it. It is a normal thing to do, it is a way of letting off steam, and in no way does it indicate burnout. Complaining vociferously about how hard you work is a time-honored form of boasting—what the kids call “humble bragging.” If you are actually worried about burnout, watch for symptoms such as a radical reduction in productivity in someone who was once a star performer, unusual amounts of absenteeism, or an uncharacteristic lack of civility.

I appreciate your attempt to be empathetic. That is a great impulse. You are right that the voice in your head (which made me laugh btw, thanks for that) isn’t helping you. But if you think people can’t hear that voice, you are dead wrong. They hear it loud and clear, and it is eroding their trust in you. I encourage you to find another talk track for the voice. Perhaps a curious voice; one that asks “What might be motivating to this person? What are they looking for that they aren’t getting?”

Seek to understand what your people are really saying. Ask questions like:

  • Can you tell me more to help me understand what is really going on right now?
  • What exactly would you want to be different?
  • What would work better for you if we could make changes?
  • What does it mean to have a life? How is that different from what you have now?
  • What is missing that would make a big difference to your quality of life at work?
  • What strengths do you bring to the table that you might be underutilizing?
  • What else do you want me to know?

Listen for what is real. There is a good chance you will find it much easier to empathize. It is entirely possible that, like most young people, your employees are perfectly happy to work incredibly hard as long as they have the flexibility to do the other things that are important to them. It is possible that just being asked the question and having a chance to talk out the answers will be all they need to go back out there and crush it.

One thing every person from every generation has in common is that no one wants to be judged. Chris Argyris, a Harvard professor and an influential authority on organizational behavior, said in the 90s that the secret to the success of the big five consulting firms—including yours, presumably—was that they identified and hired “insecure overachievers.” (I can’t find the exact quote, so it might be an apocryphal anecdote I heard from someone who worked at Boston Consulting Group.) You’ll know if that was true when you were a newbie, and if it is still true now. The reason it matters is that there is a fine line between harnessing anxiety and fear of failure to drive successful behaviors and letting it reduce you to a quivering mess. If it is still true, your job is to help your people walk that fine line to ensure their own success and, therefore, your own.

Your job as a leader is to influence your people; to help them connect to the meaning of what they are engaged in and what matters most to them. If they are in it for the money, that is an easy motivator. But many of your people may be driven by other things. Find out what they are and have conversations in which you brainstorm how to connect the work with what drives them. Listening without blame or judgment will send the signal that you care. Wait till you see how people perform when they think their manager actually cares about them. You may see a radical turnaround. Ask yourself the question “What do these kids bring that we didn’t have, and how can we leverage that?”

If you resent that nobody ever cared about you, and you had to soldier through with horrible bosses, well, okay, I am very sorry about that. But isn’t that all the more reason not to inflict those experiences on anyone else?

So suck it up, Exasperated. Cut out the judgment, get curious, and see what there is to learn in all of this. There is a good chance you could become an expert at this approach and even influence others in your company. Wouldn’t that be something?

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a Master Certified Coach and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. She is coauthor of Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials training program, and several books including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, Coaching in Organizations, and Coaching for Leadership.

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