Management Techniques for Bringing Out the Best in Generation Y

They're your high-maintenance, entitled, technologically sophisticated and fickle new talent pool. Generation Y, a.k.a. the Millennials, is also potentially the most high-performing generation in decades. Here's the lowdown on what makes them tick and how to work most effectively with them.

Over the next two decades, 76 million Americans will be retiring and only 46 million will be entering the workplace to replace them, according to the American Society of Training and Development. The vast majority of those 46 million workers will be from Generation Y, also known as the Millennial generation.

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There's been a lot of talk recently about Generation Y. Its members, born between 1982 and 2005, are known for their sense of entitlement, outspokenness, inability to take criticism, and technological sophistication. Fortune deemed Generation Y in its May 28, 2007, issue the most high-maintenance, yet potentially most high-performing generation in history because its members are entering the workplace with more information, greater technological skill and higher expectations of themselves and others than prior generations. In addition, Time described members of Generation Y in its July 16, 2007, issue as wanting the kind of life balance where every minute has meaning. They don't want to be slaves to their jobs the way their Baby Boomer parents are.

Like it or not, Generation Y is your fickle new talent pool. To attract the workers from this generation that your organization needs, you need to understand what makes them tick and how to work with its members to bring out their high potential. They may require a lot of management, but they're worth the effort. Statistically, Millennials are the most pluralistic, integrated, high-tech generation in American history—traits that make them ideally suited to our increasingly demanding, diverse and dispersed global workplace. They are well positioned to address the global issues of our time, inclined as they are to seeing the world as a vast resource of connection, knowledge and community. In addition, these kids are smart and driven to make a difference. They demand fast-track career positioning, greater work-life balance, positive feedback, training and cutting-edge technology. By challenging workforce conventions, Generation Y offers us a long-overdue reality check on the shortcomings and hypocrisies of the American workplace that may ultimately change it for the better.

Let's delve beyond the stereotypes and get to know this generation and how older generations can work most effectively with them and restructure their workplace policies to bring out Generation Y's best.

What Makes Generation Y Different

A generation is shaped by the events and circumstances its members experience at certain phases in life, beginning with childhood, according to generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe. Common generational traits initially develop as a result of social attitudes toward children and child-rearing norms at the time.

Generation Y kids were born when there was tremendous reinvestment in childhood development along with an increase in parental involvement in their children's daily activities. Millennials have been growing up with fully scheduled lives, moving from one adult-led activity to the next. The parents of Millennials continue to play major roles in the lives of their children as they enter adulthood. This trend is best exemplified by the phenomenon of "helicopter parents"—those hovering, intervening moms and dads who ensure their children receive SAT coaching, help with college acceptance essays and job applications, and maintain pressure on educators and employers to advance their children's interests.

Generation Y is also the product of the self-esteem movement that infiltrated public schools in the 1990s and proclaimed all children winners. Members of Generation Y have repeatedly been told they are special. They have received high doses of acclaim for all activities in which they participate, and thus tend to rely upon external praise from authority figures (parents, teachers, bosses) to encourage their efforts and validate their accomplishments. Raised under the shadow of Baby Boomer idealism, Millennials have been taught they can make a difference. From staging mock elections and running recycling drives in the classroom to signing on as City Year and AmeriCorps volunteers and answering the call for military service, Millennials are entering the workplace with a strong sense of civic investment and social responsibility and expect the same of the organizations they work for.

Generation Y's Workplace Strengths and Weaknesses

The upbeat, civic-focused, self-centric Generation Y attitude is beginning to manifest itself in the workforce. As new recruits, the members exhibit a high degree of ambition and entitlement: They expect and demand career track positioning, time to pursue volunteer interests, attentive management from supervisors, and regular, appreciative acknowledgement even when their work doesn't merit it. Because they've been overpraised and protected from feeling unsuccessful, Millennials often struggle with processing failure and criticism. This group frequently lacks the ability to internalize the lessons they need to learn while staying engaged in the work at hand.

The high degree of adult oversight and praise members of Generation Y received as children has left them reliant upon external direction and regular appreciation from authority figures, such as parents, teachers or supervisors. When confronted with unclear guidelines or minimal management, Millennials tend to flounder. They're unable to determine on their own the direction they need to take. They expect others with more authority to give it to them. Left to figure things out on their own, Millennials may resort to entertaining themselves until told otherwise or sticking to lesser tasks that lie within their comfort zones. As a result, Generation Y is struggling as it enters a workplace where employees are expected to hit the ground running with little oversight and to learn on the job.

Generation Y's strength is its technological sophistication. Digital communication is Generation Y's birthright. Members grew up in an on-demand world where access to information is immediate. Technology has been and remains an integral part of their daily lives, including their relationships. Thus, they possess the tools and savvy needed to work with the information systems running companies today and to address the challenges of working in virtual teams on complex problems. Raised to be team players, Millennials are well suited for collaborative work environments.

Generation Y's Impact on the American Workplace

Not all of the workplace changes Generation Y is necessitating are unwelcome, especially to world-weary Generation Xers who continue to fight an uphill battle against Baby Boomer managers for more flexible, family-friendly work arrangements. (For more information on family-friendly work, read "How to Negotiate a Flexible Work Schedule.")

Employers have noted Generation Y's distaste for working late nights, long commutes and any other "face time" expectations that are not backed by a strong rationale. They want a workplace that accommodates their desire for balance between professional and personal pursuits and their need for organizational structure, adequate direction and acknowledgment.

When you stop to think about it, is there anything inherently wrong with their workplace expectations and demands for meaningful jobs and socially responsible employers, for attentive supervisors who give clear direction and appreciate a job well done, and for healthy work/life balance? We could all benefit from Generation Y's expectations of the workplace.

Amid the challenges this generation presents to American employers lies the possibility of a vital new workplace paradigm. We just have to respond to their needs with the proper organizational policies and structures.

How organizations can become employers of choice

Given the stark reality of employment statistics and the law of supply and demand, younger, skilled employees are going to have their choice of employers. To compete for these young workers' abilities and loyalty, employers need to align their organizational policies and structures to this generation's strengths, weaknesses, desires and expectations. Here are a few ideas for HR policies and training initiatives that will help you recruit and retain Generation Y.

Organizational Policies

  • Knowledge-based industries should consider organizational policies that allow for flex-time, telecommuting, volunteer service and career incentives that permit talented and competent candidates to advance quickly within the corporate ranks.

  • Support the technology they use in their personal lives. IT departments currently struggle with the management and security risks posed by consumer technology entering the workplace. This challenge will only intensify as more Millennials enter the workforce. IT departments need to work out how to accommodate these new technologies, because Millennials gravitate toward organizations that harness the best information technology and want access to the hardware and software they use in their personal life, whether that is Google Apps, Macs or T-Mobile SideKicks.

  • Commit to socially responsible causes. Due to their civic orientation, members of Generation Y will be attracted to organizations that aren't solely focused on profits and corporate success but that have socially responsible missions. They will want to know what their employers are doing to protect the environment, promote social justice, maintain meaningfully diversified workforces and support global responsibility. They may be reluctant to work for companies doing business in countries with questionable human rights track records, like China and Sudan. They will want to see a real commitment to socially responsible causes, not just lip service.

Management Structures

  • Mentors are needed to show Millennials the ropes. Taking a cue from the popular Generation Y television program Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, they need a "lifeline" to help them learn what is expected of them professionally, the ins and outs of the corporate culture, how to process constructive feedback instead of discounting or withering under it, and how to increase their self-motivation and problem-solving skills.

  • Managers must explain to their Generation Y employees the big-picture purpose of the organization and how their role serves that purpose. This is common in some IT organizations that go to great lengths to communicate how everyone's role supports both the business and IT strategies.

  • New hire orientations. As new employees, they will require much greater up-front investment than their Gen X predecessors who were required (and preferred) to figure everything out on their own.

  • Frequent check-in meetings with managers. Because Millennials require so much supervision, managers would do well to schedule regular meetings with Millennial staff to make sure they're motivated and getting their work done, and to give feedback.

Training Initiatives

Members of Generation Y benefit most from hands-on, team-based training as opposed to lectures or textbook theories. Experiential, team-based training gives Millennials opportunities to make and process mistakes in a safe learning environment and successfully transfer their new knowledge and skills to their workplace. Some specific areas of development that Millennials and their employers should focus on include:

  • Greater understanding of their own personal strengths and limitations, and how to adapt their behavior to get the impact they desire. Self-development training initiatives will help Millennials learn to appropriately handle feedback, develop the flexibility to lead and be led in a changing work environment, and cultivate the internal motivation needed to succeed in whatever situation they face.

  • Communication skills. Because Generation Y has grown up with e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging and chat rooms, its members tend to rely heavily on technology to communicate. This may serve them well in virtual team environments where face-to-face interactions are not as common, but they need to know professional communication expectations: when and where face-to-face, phone, text, e-mail and IM communications work best to prevent the miscommunications that often come from an overreliance on technology.

  • Collaborative problem-solving skills. Training in this area will help them address complex issues in an environment where time, oversight and conventional solutions are at a premium.

Those organizations that can find the right mix of policy, structure and training for Generation Y recruits will most successfully leverage the generation's potential and ultimately retain their loyalty. Helping Millennials grow their capacity to dissect and tackle complex problems and build their resilience to critical feedback will give this generation the tools it needs to manage the current reality of the workplace and the uncertainty of the future. Given the resources, wisdom and support by older generations, Generation Y can become a catalyst for a better future—one that benefits us all.

Deborah Gilburg is a principal of Gilburg Leadership Institute, a leadership development consulting firm specializing in generational dynamics and organizational succession planning.

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