Note: Inc.'s Ask a 20-Something series offers sage advice for navigating all manner of workplace issues, from the perspective of a young employee.
Dear 20-Something: I have a mid-20s employee who thinks he's significantly better at his job than he is. Every time we talk, he demands new responsibilities that he's not ready for yet. It's like he feels entitled to them. How should I deal with his ambition--or, really, his arrogance?
Think back to when you were in your 20s. I'm sure you were plenty ambitious. After all, you eventually rose to a management position. Of course, you probably didn't demand any of your promotions. That's the difference between you and your employee, right? The arrogance! The entitlement! How dare he.
And wow, generational entitlement is a loaded concept these days. If you want proof, just log onto Twitter. Actually, don't log onto Twitter. I hope we can all agree to spend less time on Twitter. Instead, look at this 2017 report from British market research company Ipsos Mori: "When we asked people across 23 different countries to describe Millennials from a list of characteristics, 'tech-savvy', 'materialistic', 'selfish', 'lazy', 'arrogant,' and 'narcissistic' were the most popular adjectives assigned to them."
Contrast that with this 2012 Journal of Business and Psychology study, which looked at generational differences in the workplace. "The findings suggest that meaningful differences among generations probably do not exist," it reads. "The differences that appear to exist are likely attributable to factors other than generational membership."
Translation: Years after scientific rigor disproved the "entitled Millennials" theory, people still preached it as gospel. Sigh.
I've been the employee you're talking about--at least, from my boss's perspective. From my perspective, I was absolutely ready for those new responsibilities. There's a fine line between arrogance and confidence. One can easily be perceived as the other.
So, your solution needs to bridge those two viewpoints. Temper the arrogance. Embrace the confidence and reward it, once you think the work merits it.
Step one: Bring him in for a one-on-one meeting and detail exactly what he needs to show you to earn the higher-level work. Frame it in a positive light: "Thanks for speaking up and letting me know you're interested in these responsibilities. Here's what I need to see from you before you take this on." Resist the urge to add something snarky. It's not worth it.
Think about what you'll ask from him ahead of time, because you'll need to 100 percent commit to it. I've had bosses move the goalposts before--for all sorts of justifiable reasons, I'm sure--and it's unbelievably frustrating. Like, "I'm thinking about quitting" frustrating. It makes your employee realize--like a slap to the face--that he's never going to grow at your company or get promoted. Ever.
Which brings me to step two: Honor your promises. Keep an eye on him over an extended period of time (without micromanaging, of course). When you think he's finally earned the chance, be proactive about offering him those new responsibilities. Otherwise, you'll just force him to keep begging--and you'll end up right back in the kind of frustrating situation that caused you to pose this question in the first place.
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