Recent Graduate Too Smart for His Own Good? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

How do you guide a recent graduate—someone new to the work world—to not be so confident of his own work? How do you convince him to check his work, question his solutions, and search for the best answer instead of the first one?

I don’t want to tear down anyone’s confidence, but this person’s cockiness seems to be a surefire recipe for disaster. Plus, you really can’t learn if you think you already know. I appreciate your thoughts on this.

Want to Guide


Want to Guide,

have to love it when a young new employee is an enthusiastic beginner and is cheerfully
ignorant of the massive amount he doesn’t know! I’m not sure how long this newbie
has been in your care, but of course there is no way to go back to the
beginning to set the expectation that you will be watching carefully and giving
feedback. (Note: It is always much easier to closely supervise a new hire and
then loosen up as they demonstrate competence than to start loose and later
attempt to tighten up. Tuck that piece of advice away for future reference.)

your situation right now, I would suggest you go at it with subtlety. Next time
the recent graduate turns work in, set up fifteen minutes to go over it with
him. Call out what works with his first draft and then ask him some questions
that will help him go deeper for the second draft. This way, it isn’t so much
that you are criticizing as acknowledging the positives of his work so far and
now asking him to go deeper.

are some examples:

  • What
    don’t you know about this topic? Is there a way to find out what aspects of
    this topic you might be leaving out?
  • What
    if you were to question the assumption in your first point?
  • Let’s
    try looking at this from another point of view.
  • What
    if you were to take nothing as face
  • What
    arguments might you use to support your point here?
  • How
    might you expand on the implications of this?

your new hire will gain some ground in the discussion and you can ask him to
put himself through the same list of questions for his next presentation.

can also proofread his work, track your changes, and ask that he proof his own work
in the future. (He must have had to proof his work in school, no?) Here are
some fundamental rules you can remind him of.

  • Leave
    time between a first draft and subsequent edits. It is much easier to see
    errors with fresh eyes.
  • Ask
    a peer to do the proofing. It’s always much easier to catch errors in work that
    isn’t your own.
  • In
    a slide presentation, first go through it in “presentation mode.” Errors will
    stick out like a sore thumb in that format, and it is much better if there
    isn’t an audience for the discovery!

you need to go at it directly, start by sharing your regret that you didn’t set
the expectation up front that part of your job is to develop your people and
that you would be giving feedback. You can also share that it isn’t your
intention to demotivate him or shake his confidence, and that your input is
designed to help him to grow and to achieve his full potential.

key is to be clear that it’s fine for him to be where he is in terms of his
development in the new job—but now it’s time to sharpen his skills. Make it all
about the work, not about the person. Be kind, clear, concise, and relentless. Don’t
let anything egregious get by you—this way he will know you are paying
attention, and pay more attention himself.

employees report that they don’t get enough feedback. You would be doing him no
favors by letting him skate by. Eventually, he will have to clean up his act, so he might as well get started now. Someday
he will thank you for it.

can do this!

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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