Managing Generation Y

By May 1, 2006
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HR Magazine, May 2006 Stop resisting and start embracing the challenges Generation Y brings to the workplace.

Yes, it’s true. They ask “why” a lot. They weren’t even born when President Richard Nixon was impeached and never had to get off the couch to change the television channel. These “kids” can be annoying, especially when they seem to grasp so easily the latest iPod technology and have all sorts of opinions about how to better run your company.

But it’s time to stop whining about Generation Y, a group roughly 80 million strong born after 1978 that began entering the workforce five years ago. As business consultants and trainers, we have conducted more than 50 workshops on generational differences in the past year alone with audiences as diverse as firefighters, bank executives, public-sector executives and mom-and-pop shop owners.

We continue to be surprised at how reluctant older generations are to simply embrace generations X (those born between 1965 and 1978) and Y as they are and stop trying to change them.

We have thought long and hard about the key steps that must be taken to advance the state of affairs between Generation Y and their bosses, project leaders and others. We focus on this generation because it captures the characteristics of both generations X and Y and because it is the latest to arrive on the workplace doorstep.

If you are a member of one of the older generations who finds the workplace behaviors of generations X and Y confounding—or if you are a member of the latter generations but ascribe to the former’s workplace styles—we believe that the following three strategies will help you find a more peaceful existence at work.

No Formal Mentoring

Mentoring has become a popular management technique in the past decade and one of the latest buzzwords. We agree that mentoring is a critical component of being an effective manager, but many mentoring moments are found outside the context of the one-on-one formal mentoring sessions that have become commonplace in corporate America.

There are many lost opportunities for pure mentoring, especially with Generation Y. This generation craves mentoring and has discriminating taste.

We get complaints on this “mentoring” issue from both baby boomer managers and Generation Yers. When we talk to Generation Yers, they want to understand why managers are so set in their ways, are reluctant to change the status quo, are impatient with questions, hoard information and pull “power trips.”

What’s a “power trip”? In a nutshell, it’s when managers won’t answer a question or give a reasonable explanation. Or, when they put their foot down on what seems to be a reasonable request from the perspective of a Generation Yer just as a reminder of who is boss.

And then when we work with baby boomer managers, we constantly get this line of questioning: “Why do Generation Yers always ask ‘why’? Why don’t they accept that we just do things a certain way? Why do they challenge my authority?”

As a manager, suspend your judgment and consider that maybe these Generation Yers are really just curious creatures who want to know why you do the things you do so they can learn from you. Remember that when you were making that policy or when that practice became standard operating procedure, they may not have even been out of grade school. If you shoot them down with a response like “That’s just how we do things around here” or “Are you challenging my authority?” you’ve just lost an opportunity for some amazing mentoring and development. Not to mention, you’ve completely lost their respect and your authority with them.

Generation Yers explain that their questioning is not because they distrust managers’ experience. It’s more an issue of having a strong curiosity and desire to better understand the history or background of a situation.

Generation Yers have an eye to improve how things are done, and they are constantly noting a manager’s behaviors as examples of how they themselves might act in future endeavors. They also have a discerning eye for the difference between “fake” mentoring and genuine interest. They are hypersensitive to being brushed off and given a canned answer. The people in their lives who take the time to show a genuine interest are the ones they are willing to work hard for. ›

Maybe it’s because their parents were so busy earning dual incomes, working long hours and trying to get ahead that Generation Yers really value the highly engaging time with their parents and other authority figures. Generation Yers will not waste their time paying attention to someone if they think they’re viewed as an expendable asset and unworthy of the time. They will write you off as a heartless manager, and their loyalty will soon fade.

So, the first strategy is to mentor and mean it. Use every opportunity as a learning moment; see it as a chance to share wisdom with them or help them learn from your mistakes or missteps.

Take off your defensive hat and put on your development hat, and start speaking from a new reference point. Try not to infer their motives, but instead keep an open mind about their ideas. If you give them the benefit of the doubt and believe they are asking out of curiosity, then you view the questioning from a different framework.

Since baby boomers tend to be political and suspicious, they assume others are just as political and suspicious as they are and often begin to play a power game. This is simply not the case with Generation Yers. Their questioning is much more innocent than that. It can truly be a desire to make a process improvement on something that might strike them as bureaucratic, not a question of your authority.

Leave the tones of power and authority out of the picture. Generation Yers won’t pick up on the subtle messages anyway and instead will be annoyed by your lack of candor.

Be sure to answer their “why” questions before they even ask them. Stay a step ahead of them by giving frequent and detailed briefings that provide information they wouldn’t be able to gather on their own.

Give them the benefits of your experience, the history and context of a situation, your thorough understanding of the corporate political climate, some big-picture thinking, tips on how to deal with that difficult colleague or the inside “scoop.”

This is the purest form of mentoring you could do without having to label it “mentoring” in the context of a one-on-one formal session. By doing this, you will build credibility with Generation Yers and, in the process, create loyal employees because you have touched them at a personal level, instead of seeing them as just a cog in the wheel to drive up the bottom line.

Accept Technology

Baby boomers are constantly frustrat-ed with the “in-one-ear-and-out-the-other” phenomenon. Yes, Generation Y processes information selectively due to the abundance of MTV images and resources at their fingertips. They can’t take it all in so they don’t take it all in, and they bring these behaviors to work. This makes them appear slippery about accountability and sometimes leads to end products that are incomplete. This is especially true when they act like they “got it” but actually didn’t and tuned you out too quickly. And maybe some of them are just like workers from other generations who lack accountability.

Take the judgment out of it. Creating a tug-of-war about whose responsibility it is to hear the other just adds more tension and creates a paternalistic, controlling, micromanaging environment that is miserable for the boss and employee. › This is a management issue, not a values conflict or some heavy principle you must win.

Prevention is the answer. Let’s create a new accountability structure and use new technology to do so. Anticipate they won’t remember or hear you clearly, and make sure that doesn’t happen:

  • Require an e-mail response confirming their understanding of the project and direction you have just given.
  • Ask to see them capture the “to do” in their BlackBerry.
  • Ask that they factor in a tickler system that automatically reminds them what their due dates are.

Use the technology to stay in constant communication on the project. Tell them you expect them to e-mail or text message you regular updates on a project. This way you will respond with your thoughts and advice using their technology, and suddenly you have the immediacy they like and the accountability you need and want.

Give Them The Remote Control

We’ve heard Generation Yers described as know-it-alls and being “too big for their britches.” They often come to their managers with a problem and a solution. Some managers can be threatened by this problem-solving ability and the audacity to tell the manager what they think should be done.

But, we must understand that this behavior does not stem from a place of arrogance; rather, Generation Yers are hardwired this way. They are products of their environment where they were home alone or alone with an older sibling and had to learn to solve problems on their own. This breeds fierce independence.

Generation Yers also often come to the workplace with higher education and work experience from volunteer opportunities or internships, so they don’t view themselves as newbies in the organization. When Generation Yers are given the space to explore and, of course, make mistakes, they learn—just like employees of every age. But this generation expects to be given the space to try new things.

As a result of this upbringing, they want autonomy in their work. They have little tolerance for the dues-paying concept in organizations. They recognize authority but do not succumb to it automatically. They instead respect credibility, which is established through pitching in, sharing experiences, being consistent with stated values and mentoring.

You may be frustrated by Generation Y’s approach to work, but we have learned it is a mistake to spend time judging this behavior. Instead, whenever possible, give them the remote control on decisions such as training and development options. It appeals to their sense of not wanting to be micromanaged and of being independent.

We understand that this is not always possible, but when it is possible give them the reins—in the form of spending limits, time frames, political consideration, names of people to check with, etc. It costs you nothing; in fact, it frees up time for you to engage in other activities. Just give them parameters if you are worried about their decisions.

Where you can, give them some authority. It will pay off in loyalty and make them better decision-makers and future managers in the end.

Embrace the Inevitable

After reading these strategies, you’re probably wondering why it’s you that has to do the adjusting to them. It is our experience, based on numerous workshops, presentations and coaching sessions, that complaining gets you nowhere. It brings resentment and turnover.

Put an end to your pain and don’t get caught up in the power struggle. They know you are in charge. They don’t care. You can accomplish more for your organization when you make nice with Generation Y, an enormously optimistic, educated, energetic and compassionate generation.

Sommer Kehrli, M.S., who is on the cusp of generations X and Y, is an organization development consultant at The Centre for Organization Effectiveness in San Diego, a leadership institute that provides management programs, training and organization development. She can be contacted by e-mail at Trudy Sopp, Ph.D., is a baby boomer, sociologist and founder of The Centre for Organization Effectiveness. She can be contacted by e-mail at
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