Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I recently joined a new company that I love. The technology and services I will be working with are cutting-edge and I’m excited to be part of this thriving organization. The only downside, if you can even call it that, is that the majority of my colleagues, and even my supervisor, are significantly younger than me. While I’ve known this from the beginning of the hiring process and it’s something I willingly stepped into, I’m simply wondering if you can share tips for navigating an environment where I’m now the “old guy” and the pace and attitude of my colleagues is somewhat different than I’m used to.
Dear Old Guy,
Hmmm…pace and attitude. That’s worth giving some thought to. I was about to offer some nifty Crucial Conversations advice about “negotiating stories” and “setting expectations”—and I’ll offer that in a moment. But as I re-read your question, the words “pace and attitude” jumped out at me. So my first advice is to do a gut check and set some boundaries for yourself.
I worked with an executive team once that was riddled with resentment and mistrust. As we unraveled the pain I discovered that a couple of the executives joined the team after their company had been acquired by the current firm. These guys were brilliant, but had run a “lifestyle” business; one in which they worked a bit, earned a lot of money, developed great products, but had lots of time to windsurf in the early evenings and weekends. They also happened to be a smidge older than their new colleagues.
The acquiring firm was chock full of young guns with boundless energy who were used to the pace of a startup tech company. These folks slept in their offices and ate pizza for breakfast. It wasn’t long before the lifestyle guys resented the young guns and vice versa. One side saw the other as soulless, while the other saw the former as lazy.
As we sifted through the crucial conversations and unraveled the stories they had concocted about each other, the lifestyle guys did a gut check. They asked, “What do I really want?” They realized they did not want to spend the next three years living on energy drinks and Cliff Bars. As they clarified their boundaries and presented them to the rest of the team, they realized they were at an impasse. They were unable to develop a creative solution that wasn’t an unacceptable compromise. So, the two walked away; somewhat amicably.
This sobering experience urges me to encourage you to do the gut check now rather than later. Be sure you know if your different “pace and attitude” could run afoul of work norms (hours, pace, quality, ethics) in the new firm. Determine what your boundaries are, what you really want, where you are willing to compromise, and where you aren’t. Then you’re ready for the crucial conversations. These conversations will help you 1. Set expectations and 2. Negotiate stories.
First, be sure to talk openly with your new colleagues about “pace and attitude” expectations. For example, what kinds of hours constitute “full engagement?” How will you assess one another’s contribution? How do people connect with each other socially? Etc. You’ll do a better job generating a set of questions than I can by simply noticing what’s strange to you in the new place and exploring whether these are norms or just coincidences.
Second, negotiate stories. This means that you must surface any ways you will diverge from norms clearly up front and let people know why you are behaving the way you are. That will help them draw proper conclusions. For example, my “lifestyle” friends could have saved a lot of heartache for themselves and others had they held a crucial conversation shortly after joining. They could have said, “I really respect the pace and attitude you all have about working long hours. At this stage of my life I am not willing to do that. And yet, I think I can make a contribution if you can accommodate my 40-hour weeks. Please understand, this is a life choice, not laziness. And then let’s talk in three months to see if it feels fair and workable to all.”
My guess is, if this had been done well, others would not have seen them as slackers, but as choosers. It may still not have been a “fit”—but they would have discovered that, without so much conflict.
I wish you the best in the new venture.