Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Forgive Them for They Are Young Employees

Let’s not be so quick to damn an entire generation as narcissists. Maybe they’re just inexperienced.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

We complain that the latest generation of the workforce is unmanageable, thanks to a sense of entitlement that goes far beyond anything we felt at their age. As is often the case, I think we doth protest too much.

Indeed, I used to remember fondly the first time I quit. I was 22 years old, working at IBM, and living at home. I was desperate to get away from my parents, and my boss’s repeated refusals of my transfer requests were driving me nuts—that, and just about everything else he did or didn’t do. Especially galling were the times I would explain how we could do something better, only to see my boss unable or unwilling to convince other people to change their ways.

The night before I quit, I took out my “empowerment mug” full of “empowerment beans.” He had given us these things at an offsite meeting, where we fell in each other’s arms and walked across imaginary lakes of lava. I hated that mug. I didn’t feel empowered at all. I felt like a tiny, underappreciated cog. I smashed it into quarter-inch pieces with a ball-peen hammer, put it back in its box, and left it for my boss. That would show him how successful his “empowerment” was.

As I watched him open the box the next day, I could tell he missed the point. But how, I wondered, had he failed to recognize that I was trying to make him see what a terrible manager he was? Instead, I think he feared I was going to cause him physical harm. His misunderstanding baffled me. Regardless, I followed through with the rest of my plan and emailed everyone in my management chain up to the CEO about how Big Blue was no longer the place my father called the best company on Earth. I wish I could find that email, if only to demonstrate how naïve I was. But unlike today, when it would be hanging out just a click away in the cloud (and probably have gone viral), it’s lost to the sands of storage bins I’ve misplaced. I drove off playing “Ain’t Got No Boss,” by Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper, which was like singing “take this job and shove it,” but with a washboard.

Soon after, I was summoned to a meeting with a senior manager at IBM’s Somers, NY, complex where I learned two things: (1) he only wanted to know if I planned to sue, and (2) if you forget your gloves at a meeting with an executive after sending an irate email to the CEO, you won’t get them back. Those were nice gloves.

Earlier I said, “I used to remember fondly the first time I quit.” More than 20 years later, I’ve had a few stints as a frontline manager and as a second- and third-line boss. I’ve come to realize, grudgingly (oh so grudgingly), that I was not 100% in the right. Likely I was less than 10% right. Yes, my ideas were good. Yes, I was sharp and could do lots of work quickly. But no, I didn’t have the faintest idea of how to move an organization to change. I didn’t understand how to align interests, or how to resolve the conflicts between my manager, his peers, and between our department and others.

You could say I was being myopic, or just being 22. You could fault my boss as it was his first time in management, and he was in no way prepared for the likes of me. You could say I had the dynamic all wrong. It wasn’t about him versus me. Or the company versus me. Or anyone versus anyone. It was about the need for individuals to function within a larger organization—something I did not yet appreciate and he was incapable of explaining.

Why couldn’t we change our processes faster? Because those processes were performed by people who had a vested interest in their continuation. To make change requires helping people separate themselves from the process, so they can see the value to their own jobs and not the threat of being made redundant. I came across as a threat, and that was long before I smashed the mug.

I recall how proud I had felt when I alone challenged a third-line manager on a solution she was presenting at a large meeting. I told her directly that hers was the wrong approach and I detailed why in front of the full group. Now I think back and imagine the fall out that must have caused for my boss. I was a loose cannon with no allies but my own beliefs.

I could have used some guidance on how to be a better employee, how to listen, how to align my determination to make top management focus on the things that I thought were important with the things that they thought were important. But I wasn’t lucky enough to get that guidance; I had to learn it on my own.

Today, I only keep a few books: a handful of grammar guides; a few aging tomes about typesetting, the industry I joined after leaving IBM; and one business book. Just one. It’s called You Can’t Win a Fight with Your Boss, by Tom Market, and I wish someone had recommended it to me back then.

Which brings us back to those frustratingly self-involved 20-somethings. Consider this: Maybe they are just young and inexperienced. Maybe they would benefit from the gentle wisdom of a mentor. And a book recommendation or two.

David Silverman

David Silverman is an author, teacher and senior executive at a Fortune 100 firm.

Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.