A friend told me about a recent volleyball tournament that he attended with his daughter.

During the multiple-day tournament, his very excited 15-year-old daughter ran up to him and exclaimed, “Daddy, we won a bronze medal, and we’re going to get our picture taken in the medal ceremony.”

Somewhat bewildered, the Dad gave his daughter a hug of congratulations and then asked, “You guys finished third overall for your age class?”

“Yes, we were third in the bronze division for our age group, isn’t that great? Oh, they are starting the ceremony, come on, let’s get over there.”

As she ran ahead, Dad was doing the math.  Out of twelve teams in her division, her team finished ninth—3rd place in the 3rd tier. They were going to get a medal, and they were very excited about “winning.”

Not wanting to be a “buzz killer”, Dad told me that he decided to enjoy the enthusiasm of the moment,  but realized that he would need to have a conversation with his daughter about the meaning of rewards and what her expectations should be for other, more competitive activities that she might be involved in down the road.

There are two sets of expectations occurring here: The father’s, who had never encountered a situation where finishing ninth out of twelve garnered praise, and the daughter’s, who found it perfectly acceptable that she’d be given an award for participation. Neither could wait for the next tournament, but for completely different reasons.

In an organization, where you are responsible for yourself and a group of people, understanding your expectations and theirs is critical to get things done effectively and efficiently.  If there is close to a generational difference in age between you and your young (under 30) reports, it is really important to understand your expectations of them and their expectation of the organization.  Part of the self diagnosis is recognizing that your expectations about work, getting ahead in the organization, and recognition may be fundamentally different from theirs. From your perspective you may think that:

  • You have done this type of work for a long time and, consequently, have gained considerable qualitative as well as quantitative experience;
  • You managed your time to meet the demands of the job (worked late into the night and over weekends, answered work-related calls at all hours of the day and night, checked email before you went to bed), and you have paid your dues (spent endless hours in airports, working on your laptop, waiting for your flight to be cancelled; collated paper, stuffed binders,  changed the toner cartridge in a corporate copier a pinch);
  • No one had to spell it out for you;
  • The world of work is a 35- to 40-year proposition, unless you are really lucky; and
  • You don’t receive awards for participation.

Some of their expectations might be:

  • I’ve always excelled at everything, so I will undoubtedly excel in the organization, too;
  • For a long time, I have not spent more than four years at anything before moving on to a more prestigious arena;
  • I work really hard, and I play really hard, and I like the balance;
  • Until recently I have had complete control over my schedule, and I don’t understand why the work place can’t accommodate me a little better;
  • I know how to use a computer from anywhere in the world; it makes no difference where I get my tasks done as long as they get done;
  • I am from the multi-tasking generation; I can do more than one thing at a time;
  • I don’t plan on working forever; and
  • I have lots of awards for participation.

In keeping with the basic context of this blog, if you do not have a grasp of both yours and your staff’s intellectual and emotional needs related to work expectations, you inevitably will have a “failure to communicate.” So, what to do? Basically, the same thing the father of the 15-year-old daughter did: Have a conversation about expectations.  Don’t just assume you are both on the same page. Ask your young direct reports about their work habits before joining the organization, where they see themselves in three to five years, what skills they’ll need to get there, and what actions they can take to move forward. During the conversation, you can let them know what your experience has been, how the organization has changed over time, how the work environment is similar to and different from their school environment, how you would assess their current skills and what additional skills they should acquire to meet their expectations, and your expectations for their performance.  Finally, don’t make promises you can’t keep just because it feels or sounds good, and don’t threaten a consequence unless it is real and actionable.

Let me know what experiences you have had with younger workers, and what strategies you have found effective. And what about the younger worker managing an older worker—what issues have you had to address?