February 6

How to manage young thinkers with poor performance in the workplace


A confession

First off, a confession.

I’m no expert on strategy.

I don’t have a PHD, nor do I have a MBA.

And by the way, I’m all of 27 years old. Maybe as old as your kid.

So who am I to call myself a ‘strategic thinker’?

Some context

My first fulltime job came in a charity, as a social worker.

The job scope was counselling and case management for clients.

But having trained as an undergraduate social worker in the U.K. for 3 years, and having been a board director of a $14 million charity in the U.K., I thought I was it.

The hotshot with the ideas.

I started my fulltime job in October 2019.

In May 2020, I thought and executed the strategy for a programme that we were running amidst COVID-19.

In September 2020, I started sending out ‘strategy memos’ talking about where we were now as an organisation, and some thinking on how we could move forward.

In November 2020, I piloted a ‘Digital Enhancements Workgroup’ of 3 staff to refine our IT processes and look at ways we could improve the running of things.

So far, so good.

Then in November 2020, I disagreed with a manager on how certain finance procedures were. For that, I was issued with a Performance Improvement Plan, a get better or get sacked plan.

How to manage poor performance in the workplace
I really struggled to understand how to bridge the gap between my idea and eventual execution

I confess. There were many things I did wrong. I probably should not have walked up to the manager and disagreed openly with her.

I could have communicated changes in a better way.

But it also made me realise that if you’re inclined to big picture thinking, that may be seen as very deviant when you start as an entry-level executive in an organisation.

And the danger is that this experience, may end up stamping out big-picture thinkers from an early age.

Yet we also know that thinkers are best trained from an early age, and that strategic thinking isn’t just something that magically appears when you go into a senior management role, but it’s also a frame and lens of thinking that is cultivated from young.

The challenge of accommodating thinkers when they are young

The question isn’t about how you find a thinker. Because if you look back at your career, you might have come across some of these young people (aged between 25 to 30).

You would have heard them share ideas. That’s not the hard part.

But you would have seen them

  1. Framing the problem of the organisation clearly,
  2. Come up with coherent insights about the problems the organisation is facing
  3. Argue a way forward, that seems different from the conventional way of problem solving

The question isn’t whether they will be right.

More likely than not, they will be wrong. But their outperformance isn’t that their insights were correct, but that they tried to think more holistically about the problem. That they demonstrated big-picture thinking, even though their job didn’t necessarily call for it.

That they took a step back to think, even though it would have been easier for them to just get stuck in doing.

The question is where you try to fit them. Because the difficulty here is that they seem almost impossible to work with.

How to manage poor performance in the workplace
The young thinkers, may honestly feel like a pain to work with

Young thinkers aren’t stupid

They think they are right. Chances are, they may well be.

And they come from the airy-fairy world of university, where conceptualisation can sometimes carry more weight than execution.

There are times when we need that.

But what they don’t realise that it’s not just about clear-headed thinking that will lead the organisation forward. But there is a substantial aspect on soft skills such as professionalism, critical thinking, and followership.

These soft skills are listed in Bruce Tulgan’s book, ‘Bridging the Soft Skills Gap’.

As Tulgan argues in his book “The Soft Skill Gap”, which you can see from below, there are many aspects of the three main softskills – followership, professionalism and critical thinking.

  1. Followership – do I know how to follow people and the context of the organisation I’m at?
  2. Critical thinking – do I know how to think, rather than just googling the answer?
  3. Professionalism – am I professional with my work?
Credit: Bruce Tulgan, Bridging the Soft Skills Gap
Credit: Bruce Tulgan, Bridging the Soft Skills Gap

You might risk losing them, if they don’t feel like you validate the skills they show.

The tension between doing, and thinking

But you, as their manager, also know that there’s a tension you have to hold. Between thinking and doing.

Entry level staff should probably be involved in execution, rather than strategy.

But now you have this hotshot who wants to do more thinking, and is probably suggesting things that are very uncomfortable.

When I was a soldier, I remember an adage a commander once gave me,

Don’t think, just do!

That may be true in a context like the army, but in the workplace, when you’re faced with so many differing problems, taking time to think isn’t a bad thing.

So what do you do? Do you tell them to just get the work done, or do you encourage them to think more?

What do you do with your young thinkers?

Firstly, acknowledge that they are going to be different. And the kindest thing you can do for them is not to keep them. But to let them go.

If you see your organisation as a rather hierarchical organisation that’s not very open to accepting ideas from younger staff, the best thing you can do is to recommend them a better place they can go.

Secondly, teach them the soft skills. Call them out for the tiny details like:

  1. Being late
  2. Using their phone/email in meetings
  3. Checking social media during meetings
  4. Multitasking during meetings
  5. Microaggressions like slamming the door in the office

This might seem plain to you, but for younger people who grew up in a different world, this might not be that easy.

The easiest thing you can do is to be clear with them about these ground rules.

The day I quiet quitted

I still remember the day I ‘passed’ my Performance Improvement Plan. 2nd August 2021.

It was supposed to be a happy day.

But my boss noted,

you’ve been very quiet recently.

In my mind I was thinking,

Didn’t you ask for that? Didn’t you tell me to just follow my job description, and not try to do extra?

On 5th October, I left for good.

Again, I don’t think I’m great for leaving.

But I just couldn’t see how to fit in.

I quit my job and went full-time into building my own company. I felt that was the only place I could fit my desire for strategic, organisational building.

And I write this article because I know there are dozens out there who think deeply about the organisations they are at. Who want to drive it to greater heights.

But who find themselves stymied time and time again. Who bring their dreams to the feet of organisations, but find them crushed, again and again.

Because the organisation wasn’t ready.

If that’s you, some part of the problem may be how you pitched the idea. Or how you found alliances.

But the problem is not you. Or your thinking.

Sometimes, you may just have to build your own platform.



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