How to manage junior staff: Don't leave them alone!
Junior team members should never be left alone.
In this article, I’ll share my thoughts about why junior team members need to be well accompanied, for a sufficiently long period of time.
History repeats itself
I’ve witnessed this mistake time and time again in my career. Some junior, fresh out of school joins the organization, gets some attention during the first few weeks, then gets “abandoned” on a legacy project or maintenance work. Of course, silent disaster ensues.
This mistake is made for many different reasons (mostly bad ones) or simply because of a lack of attention. So what’s wrong with this situation?
The gap between school (i.e., theory) and work (i.e., practice) is colossal. Juniors that have just left school to join the workforce have tons to learn from their peers.
If you leave juniors alone in a corner, then you’re keeping them from learning the processes and the skills that they need to become productive members of the organization.
Juniors need to be accompanied 80% of the time for at least the first few months. Without that, they’re just wasting their time and your organization’s money.
Some people tend to believe that juniors just need to be assigned easy tasks. I don’t agree with that; instead, they should work together with more senior team members on whatever needs to be done, easy or hard. That way, they can “see how it’s done”, ask questions, etc.
Leaving juniors alone ultimately means killing the productivity of your team because those juniors won’t get up to speed soon enough.
Junior team members need to feel that they’ve joined a new “family”. When you get to know a new environment, you need to discover where you can find what you need, who is who, who is responsible for what, etc.
Juniors need to understand the organizational structure, how projects are run, who’s in charge, what are the current plans and priorities for the team and department, etc.
They also need to feel the culture of the organization and understand the core values that they should embrace to be aligned with the organization. This might sound silly, but it’s true. If you don’t discuss the company values with your new colleagues, then it’s just like hiring consultants. They work alongside you, but they’re not really on board with you.
Considering that juniors don’t need to know too much about the plans or shouldn’t know about the “pesky organizational details” is a mistake. By shielding them away from that, you’re keeping them from truly joining the team.
Basically, a team member that does not know about the ongoing projects, priorities, and goals of the organization cannot feel involved in those. And that’s a huge no-no. All team members need to be on the same page, need to know where the organization is headed, how the team fits in the picture, and how to help. For this, transparency is key!
Covid-19 has shaken the whole world and, for many organizations, it has created an unprecedented disconnect between employees and their organizations. Executives should be worried about this because thousands of employees probably feel much less involved and will be much more inclined to look elsewhere. Higher turnover rates would not surprise me, even if it may be counter-balanced by the risk aversion during a crisis.
We are social animals, so the first thing to do to create/keep a tight-knit group is to foster an environment where the social aspects are given enough time/priority. Team members need frequent social breaks. They need to be able to take time to discuss with their colleagues, just like they would in front of a coffee machine.
Social breaks are awesome for sharing news about the organization, ongoing projects, blocking issues and whatnot. Not helping teams chit chat is also an issue that impacts culture, communication, and, of course, well being.
A team member that works in isolation will feel less and less motivated unless if there are enough interactions with other members of the team and organization.
Team members that work in isolation for long periods of time tend to feel a disconnect with the organization. The longer it lasts, the more damage it does.
Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been working half-time as employee and am completely alone. I’ve worked there for 12 years so I know who to call and where to go whenever I need help, but still, I spend my days alone in front of my computer. And it’s been going on for months. What saves me is the fact that I only work there half-time. If I was still a full-time employee, then I would have resigned. Working alone is really bad for health and morale.
I can only emphasize with juniors who are put in a similar situation; it must be even worse; feeling left alone, abandoned, unable to communicate enough, not getting knowledge and ideas from more experienced colleagues, etc.
Leading a team of one-person islands is probably one of the worst things that you can do as a team leader/manager.
You might think that it makes sense because each person can handle different ongoing projects, but in practice, you’re killing your team. Why? Because you’re killing ideas in the egg. It’s actually even worse, you’re preventing ideas from even coming into existence. Team members need regular interactions to come up with innovative ideas.
When two programmers do pair programming, ideas pop up all the time; good ones, bad ones, but ideas nonetheless. This happens because they can exchange ideas, observe what the other one is doing, reflect on the greater picture, and identify weaknesses.
Also, since those ideas are discussed, it’s easier to create momentum and shared understanding. When you’re alone, many fewer ideas will appear and you’ll be the only one convinced. You’ll have a tougher time sharing those ideas and convincing your peers. Moreover, if you’re a junior, then you won’t feel entitled; which is obviously wrong.
When senior team members are not interacting enough with junior team members, they tend to be the only ones with all the keys. They know the complex processes, know the passwords, have the contacts, etc.
Even if they’re not interested in job protection, they’ll certainly keep important information in their head only; simply because they don’t need to document and share that information.
So, by keeping juniors aside, you’re also helping to create knowledge silos and thus are more prone to have “single points of failure” in your team. Check out my article about the bus factor if you’re curious.
Of course, information sharing is critical for a team to work fine even when more senior team members are not available.
Juniors need to learn; it’s the top #1 priority for them when they join the organization; so do whatever you can to make it possible.
In this article, I’ve shared my ideas about why leaving junior team members alone is a catastrophe. I’ve seen it happen more times than I’d like and I really think that it’s a huge mistake; both for the organization and the employee.
If you care about your teams and colleagues, then pay attention to this. Don’t create silos. Instead, push people towards each other whenever possible and you’ll be surprised how much more productive your teams can be when you let them self-organize and work together on whatever needs to be done.
They’ll be more creative, more joyful, more involved, more motivated, and, ultimately, more productive.
As the saying goes, if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to far, then go together.
Were you ever put in this position? How did you feel about it? I’m curious!
That's it for today! ✨
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