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What Every Manager Should Know About Managing Gen Y

By: Meagan Johnson and Larry Johnson
Last updated 11/8/2010

Welcome, Generation Y
Born between 1980 and 1995, Generation Y boasts 70.4 million members, representing 26% of the American population and more than 35% of the workforce. Like any group of people, you will find some difficult or impossible to manage, but with most, you'll do just fine as long as you're willing to work with their idiosyncrasies.

Generation Y has different work requirements and expectations than the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who manage them. Understanding these differences will help managers to be effective and their Gen Yers to flourish.

The goals for managing Generation Y include:
1. Help them integrate into the work setting without scaring them off or turning them off.
2. Provide them with solid primary experiences that lay the groundwork for their careers.
3. Keep them from self-destructing.

Tips for Managing Generation Y
1. Create Opportunities to Bond
One complaint employers have about Generation Y is that they don't seem to care about their jobs. We agree: Many Gen Yers, especially the younger ones, don't care about their jobs in the same way many of us didn't care about jobs when were that young. But like any generation, they need jobs to earn money to pay the bills. Given their close family upbringing, jobs that offer Gen Yers a sense of belonging and a family-like atmosphere will have the most appeal to them.

Gen Yers like to feel bonded to their bosses. This puts you in the role of concerned coach. It's a step beyond “benevolent boss” but short of “loving parent.” You still must insist they follow the rules, complete their tasks, meet their deadlines, and produce for the organization. If they do, you will applaud them. If they don't, you will help them, coach them, encourage them, and counsel them—just like their teachers did at school and their moms and dads did at home. If they continue not to meet expectations, however, unlike their parents, you will fire them.

2. Tell It Like It Is
Unlike older Traditionals and Baby Boomers, who had to compete for every award, Generation Y got trophies for just showing up. As a result, there is a perception that they can't handle bad news because they've had it too easy. This may be true for some, but they've also witnessed tremendous tragedies from Columbine High School to the Virginia Tech shootings. Generation Y wants to know the truth and sugarcoating bad news doesn't help them develop, nor does it enhance their trust in you. If the assignment you are giving them will be hard, tell them so, but follow up with why you think they can handle it. If they have done something incorrectly, let them know and tell them how they should change it in the future.

3. Avoid the “Good Old Days”
“When I was your age . . .” “Back in the day . . .” “The way we used to do it . . .” Blah, blah, blah. It's tempting to reminisce about the past. Really, Generation Y can't imagine being as old as you are, so stop rambling on about the way it used to be. Your responsibility is to coach them to succeed, not to relive the touchdown you scored back in high school.

4. Create Gen Y–Friendly Rules
Every environment requires rules to run efficiently, but some are as out of date as radio tubes and eight-track players. Get rid of stupid rules. If you spend a lot of time reinforcing certain rules with Generation Y, or you notice that they spend a lot of their time trying to figure out a way around certain rules, apply the “Why” test. Ask yourself why the rule in question is important. If it doesn't impact customer service, sales, safety, quality, or cost, consider changing or getting rid of it. To the degree you can, create an environment to which Gen Yers will be attracted.

5. Be Open to Virtual Work Environments
Baby Boomers live to work. Generation Xers work to live. Generation Yers don't see work and life as any different; they blend into one. To most Baby Boomers and many Gen Xers, there is a clear distinction between working face-to-face and working remotely. A Gen Yer feels comfortable being home at 10 o’clock on a Sunday night listening to iTunes, editing his blog, checking his Facebook page, and sending a report to a client with a CC to his boss. Make sure your technology is up-to-date. Generation Y comes to work assuming you are as high tech as their latest iPhone or Wii.

6. Offer Flextime
The ability to plan their own time and the freedom to work when they want to are major motivators for Generation Y. Not all work schedules can be a free-for-all, but examine the work schedule and determine if more flexibility can be offered. Establish what duties and assignments must be completed at the office and what can be done on the Gen Yer's own schedule. The more options you can give to Gen Yers who show they are responsible enough to handle them, the more likely they will stay loyal and go the extra mile for you.

7. Interact Often
If you work with Gen Yers, offer guidance and suggestions to help them with those parts of the job that weren't covered in new-employee orientation. If you manage them, provide a thorough orientation to the job that breaks down their duties and your expectations into bite-sized chunks. Go out of your way to give them regular feedback, both reinforcing and correcting, and give it often. This means cheering them when they do well and gently but firmly correcting them when they stray (just like their moms and dads did). Ask them often how they are doing and be willing to listen. Don't be afraid to correct them, even for behaviors you would assume they should know better, because often, they don't.

8. Stir Up a Little Fun
We spend half our waking hours at work, so why not have a little fun? When we have fun at work, attendance increases and tardiness decreases. Generation Y has blended fun into their lives, so it makes sense that they blend fun into work. This does not mean you create a playground with no expectations. It does mean that once the standards have been set, you allow some personality to come through.

9. Tell Them Why
Generation Y's signposts include an explanation for everything. They were told why they must wear a seat belt, look both ways before crossing the street, and not talk to strangers. They were made to understand why they needed to volunteer, join teams, and excel in school (to get into a good college). Most important, Generation Y was told they deserve to know why because their opinions matter.

10. Offer Close Coaching and Guidance and Give Feedback Often
This approach may sound like coddling and micromanaging if you're used to giving employees free reign to perform. We think it's an effective approach to use with Generation Y until they get their sea legs and prove they can operate without it.

Generation Y is accustomed to getting instant feedback from parents, friends, and even video games. Waiting until a six-month review starves a Gen Yer of the information he needs to know if he's on track. We suggest weekly or even daily doses of feedback from you, the manager, to each of your Gen Yers. It doesn't have to be elaborate. A couple of comments describing what he's doing well or where he needs to improve can do wonders.

The Bottom Line
Generation Y grew up with parents who spent time communicating with them, who praised them for even the smallest victories, who asked for their opinions when they were children, and who devoted time to making life fun. They expect similar services from their Baby Boomer and Gen X bosses.

You don't have to coddle Gen Yers, but you do have to understand what they need from you to succeed. Get in the habit of checking in with them daily, offering praise when it is deserved and corrective feedback when it's needed. Be specific about jobs and expectations. Offer flexibility in when and how they work, as long as they perform.

And have some fun. Managers and employees of all generations can benefit from that.

© 2010 Meagan Johnson and Larry Johnson. Adapted by permission of the publisher, from Generations, Inc.: From Boomers to Linksters—Managing the Friction Between Generations at Work, by Meagan Johnson and Larry Johnson. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association (www.amacombooks.org).

About the Author(s)

Meagan Johnson and Larry Johnson , a father-daughter team, are the Johnson Training Group. Both authors are noted public speakers on corporate culture and management. They are coauthors of Generations, Inc.: From Boomers to Linksters—Managing the Friction Between Generations at Work (AMACOM, 2010).