Navigating the dynamics as the baby of the team
Being the youngest member in a team can both be a time to learn new things and figure out how to deal with challenges
Being part of the technical underwriting team in Bajaj Allianz General Insurance, Elizabeth Mathai often felt intimidated by her colleagues and her 60-year-old boss, who was not only a senior official within the Pune-based organization but also an industry veteran. At 23, she was the youngest member of the team, where the average age ranged in 30s. “It was quite scary because my colleagues had 10-12 years of experience at least, and I had a lot of catching up to do. I had to be on my toes and couldn’t give them an excuse that I was new,” says Mathai, who spent a year-and-half with this team before shifting internally to the corporate communications team. Interestingly, in her current team too, she’s the youngest.
Mathai’s co-workers in her old team always welcomed the fact that she brought new perspective and a “fun element” to the team. “My ideas would, sometimes, be silly but my older team always acknowledged that I brought a fresh angle to the table. They would say, ‘We had never thought like that because we have been in the system for so long and have a particular way of thinking. But you bring in a new angle and that’s why we wanted a new resource in the team’,” she recalls.
Sometimes one may be the junior most in a team but end up mentoring older colleagues, who are new to the team. That’s what Anurag Dinesh, a brand manager at a Mumbai-based FMCG company, found. The 25-year-old joined his current team after spending a year being a management trainee; so, he was the youngest in terms of age as well as experience. However, a year later, due to internal movements, he became one of the senior most in his department. “It felt a bit awkward. The people who had recently moved into the team had more experience in the number of years but not as a brand manager.”
Dinesh had many people to turn to when he joined the team to understand about products and processes. “Now, I am that person to whom the new people come to. It can be a baffling situation because suddenly I am on the other end of the spectrum,” he says. Unlike Mathai, the age gap in Dinesh’s team is about six years.
Making it work
A big advantage of working with older colleagues is that you get exposed to perspectives from other functions. Giving an example, Dinesh says, “There are colleagues in the team, who have had sales experience before but are fairly new to marketing. So, whenever we are introducing something new for the sales team to execute, I check with these team members on how the sales people would perceive it,” he says.
It could also happen that the team is looking for a younger member, who is well versed with latest technology. Having overcome her initial hesitation, Mathai says she would speak her mind during brainstorming sessions with her older team, specially when the discussions involved new tech. There would also be some amount of reverse mentoring that would take place for mundane things like bringing life to a boring presentation.“The perception was that I would know how to make presentations more contemporary and I enjoyed that confidence in my ability,” she says. Even for internal activities, Mathai found herself as the representative of her team, especially when HR came out with various employee bonding activities like selfie campaign.
One of the grouses much younger team members have is not being taken seriously by their older colleagues. Delhi-based Utkarsh Amitabh, who works with an MNC tech company, took at least six months to settle into a work rhythm with his team members; the age group of the team hovers around 50. He’s been part of this team for nearly five years now. “It was important to build the trust upfront. Initially, it takes some getting used to because everyone works in a different format and not much can be done about it,” says the 28-year-old.
He points out that the challenge is to get more responsibility because one has to win the trust of the larger ecosystem. And to build trust, one has to first perform and then expect. “I was given some fairly challenging projects initially. For some, I went out of the way to request for them. The results were favourable and I kept getting more. The more responsibility you get, the more you have to perform,” he says.
In Dinesh’s experience, older colleagues pay attention to what you are saying or your requirements, if you are logical. Once in a while, his boss sets up a meeting with the team, for everyone to know what each person is working on and to have cross pollination of ideas. “Now that I am a couple of years into the system, there are times when people junior to me, who are outside my team, give me some gyaan about a domain I don’t know, and I listen,” he says.
Also, just being seen as an ideas generator doesn’t help. You need to move to the next step. “You have to be somebody who is implementer of those ideas, as well. There’s a bit of scepticism when it comes to the younger generation about whether they have the ability or grit to deliver long term. It’s pointless to get into the argument that whether the scepticism is justified. Only repeated performance and being able to deliver can change mindsets,” says Amitabh.
Another problem Amitabh has learnt over time is not to have a sense of entitlement. “People can sense the entitlement and you can come across as cocky,” he says, adding what ultimately really matters is performance.
Dealing with issues
A young colleague is often subjected to a lot of unsolicited advice, which all three say they had to learn to take it in their stride. “Also, your concerns are very different from your colleagues. In my older team, I couldn’t relate to their problems and they would find my problems trivial since we were in a different phase of life. So, sometimes hanging out after office hours was tough,” she explains. However, one advice that she cherishes from the members of her old team is: no matter how stressed out the day is, when you leave office, leave your problems behind.
Another common stereotype that’s associated with young colleagues, Amitabh says, is the perception that young people snack on jobs. “Young people are not considered trustworthy because the impression is that today they are here, tomorrow they will leave and can’t be given responsibility. It’s a chicken and egg situation. Young people snack on careers because they feel they don’t get enough roles and they don’t get enough because the older folks feel they are going to snack on careers.”
Young people should remember that when you prove performance over a period of time, you can create a systemic impact, he says.
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