Generation-Y Employees: How to make them rock!


Cast your mind back to the 1950s with the advent of rock and roll music. Followers of Bill Haley & the Comets, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly were considered possessed by the devil. The perceptions were so bad that in 1957 Professor of Psychology, A. M. Meerio, from New York’s Columbia University warned that “if we cannot stem the tide of rock and roll music, with its waves of rhythmic narcosis…we are preparing our own downfall in the midst of pandemic funeral dancers”.

The hysteria continued. In the 1960s The Beatles, Rolling Stones and the hippies were totally condemned because of their long hair. Worse again was the 1970s with the hard rock and heavy metal… ‘oh heaven help us when this hopeless generation grows up; the world is going to collapse’.

Well guess what? This is the generation running the world today, managing corporations, running franchises and small business. I am one of those Baby-Boomers. This generation gap is nothing new. In fact, the ancient King David wrote about it 3,000 years ago, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”

In a similar vein, most managers and business owners today loudly declare that one of the hardest challenges in business relates to managing Generation-Y (some call it “Generation-Y bother!”).

The overwhelming perception is that they’re lazy, selfish, opinionated, uncommitted, with the expectation to walk out of university into the GM’s role, and the list goes on. So much so that many articles have been written in magazines, books published and much research into the issue conducted; and yet, the complaints continue.

Demographers vary on the definition of Generation-Y. The broadest definition is those born between mid 1980s and the late 1990s. This group of the workforce is now roughly between the ages of 15 to 30 years old. Demographers also refer to this group as the E-generation. The E-generation has evolved from their use of electronic technologies, they are more environmentally aware; their sensitivity to social justice shows a mind that is emotionally attuned.

The evidence

A report by Hewlett, Sherbin and Sumberg (Harvard Business Review, July/Aug 2009) shows that 84 per cent of Generation-Y profess to be very ambitious and will go the extra mile for their company’s success. Also, 87 per cent say that work/life balance matters to them.

The same report identifies the earlier generations as hard workers, 42 per cent of Baby-Boomers expect to work beyond the age of 65. It seems that our generation of Baby-Boomers perceive a contradiction between our approach and that of Generation-Y. For Baby-Boomers, the hard work in the past now earns the ability to ask for work/life balance – we’ve earned it! Whereas the Generation-Y’s haven’t earned their stripes in order to ask for work/life balance. Worse still, how can Generation-Y’s purport to be ambitious, without putting in the hard yards.

A survey by an independent research firm conducted on behalf of leading recruitment firm, Robert Half International reported the following Myths vs. Realities: (see table 1) – see PDF below.

Generation-Y reported that respecting their manager is the most important factor in their job. This ranked higher than liking their colleagues, work/life balance, short commute, nice office or state of the art technology.

Getting Generation-Y into the swing

1. Are you their dream boss?

Generation-Y described their ideal manager as skilful, an advisor and supporter, pleasant and caring, flexible and open minded. The nightmare boss is a micromanager, not concerned for their employee’s professional development, and blames everyone but themselves. In fact, Mercer’s international employee engagement index shows Australian employees are more likely to leave their employer than their counterparts in USA, UK and Europe, ranking “being treated with respect” and ”quality of leadership” as factors that most influence their
decision to leave (BRW Dec 2011).

2. Look out the window

Jim Colins author of “Good to Great” identified windows-and-mirrors as a common trait in managers that have surpassed their competitors and some of them out performed the stock market by up to 80 times. The successful managers looked out the window and attributed their success to their employees then looked at the mirror and attributed their failures to themselves. By contrast, the failing managers did the opposite; looked at the mirror for the glory and looked out the window to blame their employees for the failures. In a nut shell, cut the blame game.

3. Communication and courtesy

Respecting them as an individual will make them feel important. Dale Carnegie in “How to Win Friends and Influence People” suggests simple approaches in interactions with other people that can easily win them to your way of thinking like, giving them a fine reputation to live up to, throwing down a challenge, and dramatising your ideas. Research by Professor Berger from Wharton Business School has found that teams respond with greater motivation when they are slightly short of the target. The motivation waned when they were far behind, slightly ahead, and when they were tied or lacked feedback. All these are sure to work with equally well with Generation-Y. Tell them they’re almost there and they will try harder.

4. Motivate and inspire them

Carnegie suggests you can motivate and inspire by showing sincere appreciation for the effort that was put in, rather than a putdown “this is not good enough” or “we never did it this way when I was your age”. In the 1970s, Langer’s experiment in Harvard University showed that making a request without providing a reason why this request is made reduced the compliance with that request. That is, only 60 per cent of people actually complied, compared to 95 per cent inspired to comply when a reason for the request was added.

5. Clear communication of accountabilities

Due to their inexperience Generation-Y may inadvertently appear apathetic – psychologists use the term “bystander apathy syndrome”. One story that highlights this syndrome was in 1964. Kitty Genovese was murdered in the presence of many bystanders, yet none of them called the police because they all assumed that someone else will do it. This can happen to a Generation-Y employee, who may assume that someone else will do the job. Smart managers always ensure that a task is assigned to somebody specific; to avoid a general assumption that someone will do it.

6. Incentivise them

Employees will gravitate towards the tasks or actions that get rewarded. If you set short-term goals, that’s what you’ll get, short term results. Pulitzer Prize winner, Upton Sinclair says “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” In simple terms, what gets rewarded gets done.

7. Birds of a feather flock together

When you convert one Generation-Y employee to success, chances are they will have friends of the same calibre; they are the ones to recruit. And now you’re rocking!

It seems that the Baby-Boomers and Gen-X’s have forgotten all the prophets of doom predicting their failures and are now complaining about the attitude and work ethic of Generation-Y! Truth is Generation-Y have been created, influenced and shaped by their Baby-Boomer/Generation-X parents, like the old song ‘Cats in the Cradle’ says “my son (daughter) has grown up just like me”. Just as we grew out of our phases, cut our hippie hair, abandoned the discotheques, turned our attention to our careers and focussed on raising our families, the same will happen again to Generation-Y.

Your best solution is to show leadership, and to give them a chance.

Nader Seifen is Head of Franchising and Leasing with TeleChoice. He has been involved in managing distribution channels for 30 years, working for franchisors and as a franchisee for seven years.

Phone: 03 8699 2555