I heard an observation from a management consultant today that younger employees tend to have a more difficult time with problem solving because they were raised with much more adult oversight in their social growth (as opposed to us that played kickball until dark with our friends and just worked everything out ourselves). In other words they have a framework that says "Solve problems by going to an authority figure" instead of using the resources available to them and figuring out a problem themselves.

I am not intending to bash younger workers, I have a very young staff, and I really like them. I also don't mean to say that my reaction would be different to any ineffective behaviors they display no matter what their age. But I'm really interested if you all have found that observation to be true.



E75's picture

With my admittedly limited experience, I've made a similar observation. To be fair, the DR saw it herself too. She attributes it to her limited understanding of the technical aspects, but I'm beginning to think there may be more to it than just that.

Which reminds me that I should bring up independent problem solving coaching at the next O3. Any recommended resources on this?

What's more, I likely should to adjust my own behaviour as well. I'm probably way too eager to solve her problems FOR her. I'ts my second nature, I'm a high-D high-I "Result-Oriented" kind of guy. But nonetheless...

stephenbooth_uk's picture

 Problem solving is a definite skill in and of itself, separate from knowledge of the field in which the problem exists.  Indeed, in my experience the most gnarly problems tend to be those which cross fields.

 I can't say I've noticed an age differential in being able to solve problems or approach (people of all ages come to me with problems to be solved, I have a reputation for being a problem solver), other than what could be explained by the person simply having been around for a greater or lesser time so having greater or lesser experience.  Where I have noticed a differential is between people who have and have not been to university or other post secondary higher education.  In my experience when someone has had a reasonable level of  post secondary higher education they are more likely to have an effective problem solving approach and are more likely to first go to their own resources and research than just find someone else to solve the problem for them. 



Skype: stephenbooth_uk

DiSC: 6137

Experience is how you avoid failure, failure is what gives you experience.

bug_girl's picture

I haven't noticed much of an age difference in problem solving skills. It seems like it's more related to early life experiences than formal education, to me.

There was a recent paper that suggested that children that learn to play by themselves, or to amuse themselves without adult supervision, learn problem solving and self-management skills very early in life. 

They then are able to use this in school...and accomplish more there...and that early problem-solving and self-management experience sets them up for later success.

So--kids on a farm learn to problem solve, even if they only have a GED, and become a mechanical wiz I can't live without; some adults with lots of degrees...may not have a lot of common sense.
Ultimately, everyone comes to you with skill gaps.

Recent new technical acronym I learned: SOB  (Self-Organizing Behaviors)


BJ_Marshall's picture
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Age doesn't matter. Your DRs are individuals and can't be grouped together. (I want to stave off a soapbox rally regarding the ethical dangers of managing by "types of people.")

Regardless of whether a DR was comfortable solving problems, I'd guide them into it. When a DR came to me with a problem, I usually responded with, "OK, so what do you think we should do about it?" After a few minutes discussing it, we'd feel comfortable enough to where I could say, "Sounds good, - go do X and keep me posted." (I admittedly have not had many DRs in my short career, and I am currently in a position with no DRs.)

In retrospect, I should have followed up on some of those discussions with some positive feedback to encourage to problem solving behavior. (When you present problems to me along with possible solutions, here's what happens: Our work gets done better, you help make my job easier, and I get the sense that you can take ownership of problems even when you we didn't cause them. Thanks a ton!) Live and learn.

- BJ

430jan's picture

Thanks for your thoughts. BJ, I want to be clear that I'm dealing with individual behaviors individually. Age does not matter in my response to ineffective behaviors. But it is interesting if it is occurring with much more prevalence. Maybe the difference is education and experience, as Stephen and Bug_Girl have observed. And also my response doesn't help if I just jump in solve a problem, as Mikkolipasti says. I don't really want my staff in awe of my expertise, I would love it if they would gain their own!

jhack's picture

First, if your skills are significantly above theirs, they'll hold you in awe.  Nothing wrong with that.  You should react to it with coaching and delegation, helping them get to your level.  They will, over time, change the ways in which they hold you in awe.  

Second, it's Socrates who has corrupted our youth.  What is the matter with kids today?  Not like when I was their age...we had to walk to school...  Please don't join the ancient and curmudgeonly chorus of crotchety elders decrying the next generation.  It's intellectual laziness on the part of the management consultant.   The world is in fact a better and better place over time, and that couldn't have happened if the youth of each generation were worse than their wise elders.  Silliness.  

John Hack

430jan's picture

<Please don't join the ancient and curmudgeonly chorus of crotchety elders decrying the next generation.>

I love it!  Such a sensitive topic, I know there are strong feelings on this one. A I LOVE my young staff and because my profession is really quite old on the average (into their 50s on average) I am constantly defending their terrific efforts. I feel very fortunate for their enthusiasm, great ideas and desire to serve the public. They are truly in it for the difference that they can make for our community and I feel so much farther ahead in succession planning just to be serving to bring along this next generation. Thanks for reminding me about coaching and delegation. Have to have that in front of me always.

 I am constantly learning new things. When you work with humans there is never a lack for a new thing to learn and understand. Guess that's why I ask the question. Just to examine, not to wander into jerk-land. I'll never be ancient and I don't think those types frequent these boards. I love the innovation and desire to do better that prevails on manager tools.



Mark's picture
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[My comments below are not intended as a response to the original post.  They are an address regarding where Manager Tools stands on "generational management", and the pernicious discussions like this one that it has fostered. We do not shy away from commenting strongly on ideas that are fundamentally flawed and  repugnant to us, as this one is.  We won't stop posts about this topic, as they give me a chance repeatedly to squash this kind of thinking.  The moment we allow these kinds of generalizations to take hold, "old people" will suddenly be unfit for work, women will be kept in certain roles, and certain races will be excluded from certain jobs. - H]

I'm not sure what this idea is more of: stupid, or bigoted. 

It's stupid first because YES less experienced people aren't as good as more experienced at problem solving.  Folks, REALLY, how hard is it to figure that one out?  And big surprise younger people are BY DEFINITION less experienced than older people, in general.  (Please don't share an example of "one person" you know.  This thread was started with generalizations...let's just stay with generalizations.)

And THAT is stupid because making a comment on it while attributing it to anything other than evolution is just WRONG.  And wrong is usually stupid. 

For the record, this is a classic example of Academic Creep.  This consultant is getting smarter, every year, so relatively, those young people just look less and less smart.

This is old news, done to every generation by its predecessors.  Only NOW it's interesting because of all the literature on the generational differences.  Now we can quote a published author and our opinions are "valid".

Which brings us to bigotry.

When we judge an entire group of people by our own observations of a few, we are engaging in a form of bigotry.  It may be soft bigotry, but it's bigotry.  And bigotry flies in the face of equality, and respect, and individual freedom, and nearly everything that modern civilization stands for.

Young people - inexperienced people - don't deserve the labels (nor the rationales thereof) being slapped on them by stupid older people because of an inherent evolutionary process trying to be explained through the false and distorting lens of academic creep, no matter how popular it has become.

The moment we set aside our professional obligation to relate to each person on their own, and use some creepy generalization to stand in for the hard work of building relationships, and then manage them based on the GROUP we have put them in RATHER THAN THE PERSON THEY ARE, we do the profession of management a great disservice.


430jan's picture

That hurt.

Mark's picture
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To 430Jan and the rest of the community-

I know that my post was direct and harsh.  I hope you can see that I was addressing the idea, as opposed to attacking you for sharing it.

These kinds of ideas - sociological insights about groups - even under the guise of trying to relate to the group better - are pernicious.  They cause us to give up our individuality... one of the very engines of our progress through the centuries.  Every day, all the time, we relate to individuals.  Groups do nothing.  People do.

Right now, there is someone, probably white, relating to his team in a certain way because they are black.  Wouldn't we fire him for using that as a defense?

It's certainly an unnecessarily dramatic reference, but as I was composing my post, I remembered Martin Niemoller's comments about the slow decay that he observed in Germany before WWII:

When the Nazis arrested the Communists, I said nothing; after all, I was not a Communist. When they locked up the Social Democrats, I said nothing; after all, I was not a Social Democrat. When they arrested the trade unionists, I said nothing; after all, I was not a trade unionist. When they arrested the Jews, I said nothing; after all, I was not a Jew. When they arrested me, there was no longer anyone who could protest.

Which is to say, I am not afraid to BUILD a soapbox for me to stand on if the cause is just.  AND SCREAM FROM IT.  John Major once said that society needed to condemn a little more and understand a little less.

I shared my comments while feeling the fear that a softer tone could easily send the message that this idea was acceptable because it was popular. 

I worry EVERY DAY that someone will learn something here that they will use tomorrow, and either fail, or worse, harm another.


Mark's picture
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I've just read a sidebar in the latest HBR, which is dedicated to Trust.  The sidebar addresses Philip Zimbardo's recent reflections, in light of Abu Ghraib, on his famous Stanford Prison Experiment, which he chronicled in The Lucifer Effect.

Quoting now from HBR:

"....Zimbardo's findings shed light on the common organizational problems of peer pressure and reluctance to speak truth to power.  In all groups, there's a powerful desire to belong.  Everybody wants to be liked, to be part of the "family".  Hence, the pressure to conform is almost irresistible.  And nobody wants to be the skunk at the party, the one who tells the boss that his fly is open or that she has peanut butter on her chin..."

I'm willing to be the skunk at some parties. I admit frankly that I don't like it.   I have less friends than I did a number of years ago.  It used to be that I had fewer clients, and my communications with them were private (although no less strident), and to my friends I was just on the road a lot.  Now MANY MANY people hear most of the words I share, and that means there are more "parties" where I am expected to be an expert rather than just an attendee.  If I'm going to live with THAT, I'm not going to squander the chances I have to stand up to the power of the popular and poisonous ideas that make it to the surface every once in a while.

Relatedly, I know that "speaking truth to power" ALSO means telling Mike and me what you think, and disagreeing.  Hopefully you know we're okay with that, but just in case: we're open to hear how we can serve you better.  If you don't like my tone, we want to hear that.  If you think I'm off base, speak up.  You needn't PM me, but if you want to, that's fine too.

bug_girl's picture

I have to say that I am not seeing the generalizations you're talking about past the few initial posts!  Pretty much everyone who responded said there would be individual differences. (?what am I missing?)

Also, as an evolutionary biologist, this doesn't make sense either:   "making a comment on it while attributing it to anything other than evolution is just WRONG."  What happens to us in our individual lives is individual variation, not evolution. If we reproduce, -then- evolution happens (change in genetic frequency).  Did you mean individual variation/experience?

To clarify and if anyone is curious, here is an example of the literature I was talking about. That result would apply to any age group of adults; the variation in experience is in what happens in their childhood/past. 

In case anyone is unclear, I was saying that there is variation in experiences between individuals, not that there were specific patterns generationally, and that some experiences have been shown to produce better problem solvers.

So, I agree with Mark.

jhack's picture


Mark was focusing his rant at the management consultant and other self styled pundits, not at the people on this thread.  The OP struck a nerve...

Mark (and many others of us) want managers to look at people as individuals, not members of demographic/ethnic/whatever groups.   

John Hack

bug_girl's picture

clearly, he was upset about something--I just couldn't quite figure out what.  Thanks for the translation :)

Mark's picture
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Bug_Girl is correct. 

I incorrectly attributed the underlying driver of this misdiagnosed phenomenon as evolution.  What I intended to say was that as a person grows, we tend to forget what we didn't know when we were younger.  In my head, I thought of that as a form of personal evolution, and then incorrectly used a word that would imply the evolution of an entire species.  I regret my error, and appreciate the correction.

In terms of cleaning up my impact on the thread, I'd like to add another thought: there's a danger in calling some of my comments "rants".  I've resigned myself to the use in general, because I have done it several (!) times, and probably have used the term myself to refer to my commentaries that are direct and forceful.  [ Thus, I have NO beef with John's usage. ;-) ]

Nevertheless, there is a difference, I believe, in the noun and the verb.  The verb means to shout loudly and at length.  But when we call what someone did a rant, there is an associated pejorative, a degradation of the validity of the argument, I think.  It's as if there's an assumption that everyone lives in a perfectly proper and civil world, and a "rant" is by definition somehow inappropriate.  Credit the early identification of flame wars as antithetical to Internet intellectual commerce as the start of this trend.

I am willing to be considered inappropriate in the defense of free peoples, free markets, respect, and the professional obligations of being a manager, and caring for others while at work.

I hope that members are aware that I am quite equipped to be persuasive in writing.  So when I raise my voice, albeit in writing, you can rest assured that I do so consciously, and intend to make the conversation stop and take notice, rather than simply refute arguments.  Simply because an idea is widely disseminated and perhaps popular doesn't make it "true"...and even if it IS true, every once in awhile, one person has to stand up and say, "this is wrong.  It offends core principles."

As they say, one with conviction is a majority.

[This is not a rant. ;-)))) ]

bug_girl's picture

I just couldn't quite figure out what was going on--sometimes I get stuck and have to have someone "translate". John sorted it out for me :)

As I tell my students, "it's not evolution without reproduction. And that is why it's totally normal that biologists are obsessed with sex."

Maybe you need a <soapbox> tag for your non-rants? :D

ashdenver's picture

If I may chime in on the answer of the original question - Do your DR's know how to problem solve?

I think most of my DR's do have some basic understandings of the problem solving process because it's inherently part of the job -- to determine what is causing the variances between the source documents and what the system shows has been loaded.  That, in and of itself, is a form of problem solving and I think my folks show some level of problem solving ability or they wouldn't be in the jobs they have right now.  That said, I think problem solving is a terrific skill to have and as a skill, I think it needs to be developed and exercised. 

Last week, I stumbled across my 2004 calendar of tangrams on which I had given up when I went out on LOA due to extreme fatigue resulting from a medical condition.  When I got back to work 6 weeks later, I had no energy to focus on the tangrams so I set the whole thing aside.  This past week, I've brought the unfinished calendar to the office and I work on the remaining tangrams during the staff meetings (Tue, Wed, Thur, 45 min each, over the phone) to keep me from completely zoning out. 

At seeing this thread, I was inspired to locate an online version of tangrams and I've incorporated this as an activity during our team meeting this coming Thursday.  We are a virtual team (hence the online version) and as a group, they seem quite eager to ... I don't know if "learn from me" is the right way to go but I've got at least 3 or 4 out of the seven who have expressed interest in and demonstrated follow-up on some of the advice I've given them in the last six months.  I'm hopeful that introducing the tangrams will spark their desire to think outside the box, shift their perspective, see things differently, etc. as part of the problem solving process.  After all, even if they have basic problem solving skills, it couldn't possibly hurt to hone and develop those skills.  It's not like the world or the workplace will run out of problems to solve!

So if we steer clear of generalizations or age categorizations, what do you all do to develop problem solving skills with your DR's?  

fchalif's picture
Licensee BadgeTraining Badge

Dear friends,

When i am faced with difficult problems or issues such as the one outlined in this thread, I try to get back to what I now call my basics. I have spent almost 4 years implementing, doing and trying Manager-Tools action items. Here is how I now summarize my behavior around management and I conclude below relating it to the consultant and the statement that 430jan heard.

  1. Focus on the Future: As Managers, we are asked to fulfill the goals of our organization. These results are required now and in the future.
  2. Focus on Individuals: Individuals are who will get us where we need to go to provide these results to our org, now and in the future. These individuals have somehow found their way into our org, just as we have. They therefore require that we provide them with all the help and opportunities that will assist us to achieve our goals. That is our responsibility and duty as their manager. Each individual is different and the more "differences" you have on your team, likely the greater the success you will have, as you can encourage each to their individuality and leverage this to meet the diverse set of goals your team likely has.
  3. It takes Time: Achieving our goals and managing individuals takes time. We need to know our individuals and our goals. If we are lucky enough to start with small goals, then we have a chance to work though them. If we are good at achieving these small goals and are led by good managers, then we can grow as individuals and get to do more......especially if we start young!!!

Consultants may have a challenging task since they often spend a small amount of time with an organization. The good ones take extra time, carve out a smaller objectives, get to know your goals and your people. They try to be effective and often say as little as is required to get the job done. The bad ones choose to state generalities that shock you and provoke thought. They often focus on differences in a negative way to show they have insight into our situations!!

We need to stay away from those consultants and it is particularly IMPORTANT to keep these consultants away from our teams.

This particular consultant referred to by 430jan made a statement that is destructive. It is general, not backed by data and in no way speaks to his\her individuals nor the future. I'll use a different example here that is equally as irrelevant to 430jan as the one referred to in the original post. The average height of young people was 5 ft 8" 30 years ago and now it is only 5 ft 6" . The fact is that 430jan has the team he\she has and her duty is to make the best of it. I do not think 430jan is a basketball coach!

As far as young people are concerned, they are a part of my equation for the future. I don't know nor do I care that they may less of problem solver than they were in the past. The fact is that in my situation, there is a particular hiring context and we try to make the best of that context and hire the best that is out there.


ChrisBakerPM's picture

 I once had the misfortune to work with someone who heaped derision on  DRs who couldn't solve problems for themselves.

But then anyone who tried to solve a problem for themselves quickly found that he heaped much more derision on them, unless they had come up with the exact same solution that the boss would have chosen himself. And even then, he'd need to "personalize" their solution at least a bit.

So he'd inadvertently trained his people NOT to solve problems, even though that involved getting the same old lecture about how nobody showed any initiative.

I don't think he ever saw how much he'd manufactured his own problem!