Viewpoint: Teaching Young Employees to Have Hard Conversations

By Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D. May 9, 2021
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Viewpoint: Teaching Young Employees to Have Hard Conversations

​It's difficult enough to have hard conversations at work. It's likely to be even tougher for younger, less-experienced workers who are just entering the workforce. These younger workers, for whom texting has been a primary mode of communication with friends, may need support from their managers as they settle into an office environment for the first time.

A Digital Crutch

Research has shown younger generations would generally rather text an invitation to someone in the next room than ask in person. Not for convenience, but because it is easier to bear the risk of rejection over text. Of course, trying to read emotions in texts or e-mails can be like looking at a Rorschach ink blot—we impose our own internal experiences and views of the world on what we read in the text.

Younger workers, with less face-to-face conversational experience than previous young cohorts and less life experience, may be under-skilled in having hard conversations. As "soft skills"—such as communication, collaboration or problem-solving—become increasingly important in the workplace, the generational skills gap may become even wider. 

The Work-from-Home Handicap  

Employees relatively new to an office workforce and who have been working from home may be even more disadvantaged. They've been hired, onboarded, acculturated (to some extent) and collaborated with through virtual work interactions. Research from Microsoft indicates this has been less than ideal for learning, engagement, participating and belonging. According to a study by workflow automation platform Nintex, older workers have felt more productive than their younger colleagues when working remotely. 

These younger workers may be less equipped to have productive, hard conversations. When confused, they may be less comfortable asking for clarification; when they need help, they may be hesitant to ask for it. 

A classic example of this challenge is when younger employees don't let their supervisor know that they might miss a deadline. Best practice dictates that when you anticipate you might be late for a deadline, you tell the supervisor, ask to bring on extra help or ask to reprioritize other work. A younger employee, embarrassed about being unable to complete the work on time and less comfortable with having a hard conversation, might instead say nothing about a missed deadline until asked about it. 

Long-Term Implications and Solutions

Younger workers need to be able to grow—to take on more responsibility and interact with people effectively. At least some of them will be the leaders and managers of the future, spending an average of 13 percent of their time trying to manage conflicts among employees. Without good soft skills, managing such conflicts will take even more time and potentially lead to higher levels of disrespect and incivility in the team or work unit.

How can employers remedy this? Here are some solutions to help these employees.

Prioritize younger workers' return to the office. A recent PwC survey found that less-experienced employees (i.e., younger employees), compared to more-experienced employees, preferred to spend more time in the office and less time working remotely. This suggests that younger employees realize the learning opportunities afforded by being co-located. 

Upskill younger employees to take interpersonal risks, in a way that is respectful. It's vital these workers are thoughtful of how one's own words and deeds are perceived by others. Fundamentally, they must be mindful of the difference between intent and impact and how to assess that impact. This is especially hard when working remotely with people they only know through Zoom, e-mail and chat. Therefore, it's important these younger employees ask questions and offer a genuine, open mind to the answers. 

When younger workers are ready, encourage them to take interpersonal risks. This is the most fundamental tool for growth. Being able to have hard conversations means digging into oneself to bring forth the most caring, vulnerable, "genuine" self and showing that self to the other person. Further, they need to believe their managers will listen with an open mind to that feedback and take it to heart. They need to feel secure enough to take that risk. 

More-experienced employees can help this process by providing workers with their own respectful feedback, even if it's unsolicited. Feedback is the primary way we learn. All of us can benefit from soliciting feedback and engaging with others in a respectful way—not just younger employees.

Robin Rosenberg, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, executive coach, author and CEO of Live in Their World, a company that uses virtual reality to address issues of bias and incivility in the workplace. 

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