Ask a Boss: My Employee Expects Way Too Much From This Job!

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

Dear Boss,

I have a relatively new staff member who is in his first professional job after grad school. He’s a great employee and is always eager to take on more, but I’m starting to see a problem that I need some help with: He’s getting dissatisfied because there isn’t always more for him to take on.

I want to be a supportive supervisor and offer him opportunities and challenges when they arise, but I think I need to help him understand that a big part of work life is just doing your job every day, especially when you’re new to the profession. There’s not always going to be some big new project you’re asked to take on, and when you’re a lower-level staff member, you’re not always going to be participating in the high-level work that involves decision-making. I think he’s still in the mind-set of grad school and internships, where being a star is important, and everything is very project-oriented.

I’ve supervised staff before, but they were clerical workers in positions without opportunity for growth. This is my first time supervising someone who really wants to be challenged and whom I feel I have an obligation to cultivate as a new member of the profession. But as a middle manager I don’t have the freedom to create opportunities for him. How can I help him adjust his expectations of what work life is like without being a total downer? (And conversely, how can I adjust my own mind-set so I don’t feel guilty that the job is what it is?)

Yeah, the transition from being a star in school to being on the lowest rung of the ladder at work can be jarring. It’s super weird to go from spending your days debating Kant and dissecting symbolism in Victorian literature to being asked to spend hours collating documents or making PowerPoints for someone else’s work.

The reality, though, is that lots of jobs just aren’t that glamorous or exciting. Not every job, especially the jobs people typically have at the start of their careers, is going to come with a steady flow of new challenges and high-profile projects.

That can go down a lot more easily, I think, when two things are clear to the person in that kind of role: First, that it’s not a reflection on their talent or abilities, or the result of them not taking enough initiative, but rather just the nature of what the job requires; and second, that this isn’t all they can expect from work for the remainder of their days, that doing this work well now is what will get them access to more interesting work later.

But it might be that you need to lay that out pretty explicitly for your staff member. People don’t always understand this intuitively, and that can result in real frustration if someone on their side doesn’t take the time to explain it.

So I’d sit down with him and have a straightforward conversation about all this. To lead into it, you might start by asking him how things are going generally and how the job is measuring up to the expectations he had when he came onboard. Make it clear that you’re genuinely interested in knowing what his experience with the role has been like so far. If he doesn’t raise the concerns that you’re worried about, you could say something like this: “At times, I’ve gotten the sense that you’d like to be taking more on. I want to be transparent with you about the fact that the nature of this job is that sometimes there really isn’t more to take on. The measure of success in this job is really about [fill in what it’s about, for example, being responsive to client calls or supporting your research team], and it’s not a role with a ton of opportunity to take on work outside of that. That said, I think you’re quite talented and you’re building a track record of doing X really well. That track record and the rest of the experience you’re getting here is going to give you a good foundation for eventually moving on to roles like Y or Z, where you’ll have an opportunity to do higher-level work.”

Ideally, this will start a more open conversation with him about the nature of the role and what’s reasonable to expect from it. It’ll also probably give you more data about how much this is really bothering him (and you might find out that it’s less of an issue on his end than you think).

That said, though, it’s worth noting that for a lot of people, feeling like they’re growing and being challenged is one of the biggest determinants of their happiness at work. If this guy is talented and you want to retain him for a while and keep him reasonably fulfilled by his job, it’s worth thinking through whether there are additional things you could offer him. I hear you that there’s not a lot of opportunity to give him new projects, but what about other things? For example, could he occasionally sit in on meetings that he wouldn’t normally attend so that he can get a better feel for how decisions are made above him, or help coach an intern, or go to the sort of conferences that he’ll probably find deathly boring in a few years but which might be interesting and novel to him now?

And if he’s truly talented and you see a lot of potential in him, you also might find ways to mentor him. For instance, you might invite him to sit in while you run important meetings and then debrief with him afterward and point out why you did or said particular things. You might also look for opportunities to talk to him about challenges and decisions you’re facing in your own job, the options you’re considering, the factors you have to take into account, and what you’re deciding and why. Doing that sort of thing will help him hone his own instincts, which will be hugely helpful for whatever he does next and likely make him feel that he’s developing in ways that simply doing his own work wouldn’t provide.

But at the same time, it’s okay to recognize that this might be a transitory job for most people, one that they’ll use to build up work experience and then move on from after, say, two years. And that’s totally fine — your measure of success here shouldn’t be “person feels fulfilled by the work forever,” but “person stays a couple of years, does a good job, and then moves on.” The key, really, is to be transparent with people during the hiring process about the nature of the work and what the job does and doesn’t entail, so that people have a realistic picture of what they’re signing on for. Think of it as truth in advertising, so that people who will chafe against the constraints of the role can self-select out before you bring them on.

All of this should help with your guilt, too. If you know that you’re being upfront with people from the start and that you don’t expect people to stay forever, I think you’ll get more comfortable with the idea that this is just what the job is — and that you’re not doing anyone a disservice by acknowledging that openly and helping them figure out how to get what they can from the job within those confines.

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