15 Tips for Motivating Gen Y in the Workplace
Generation Y's transition from college and grad school into the working world has been a bumpy one, to put it politely. "Extended adolescence" is real, "helicopter parents" are real, and organizations that hire twenty-somethings are finding that many of them don't walk and talk and act like adults. Making them fit for the professional world now falls on the shoulders of corporate America, where older and wiser managers are struggling to find the best ways to recruit, manage, "professionalize," groom, and retain Gen Y.
Whatever kind of business or organization you run, 100-million strong Generation Y is going to be at the heart of your success or failure, so you have no choice but to figure out what makes them tick. You won't be able to "hire around" the quirks of your next generation of employees and future leaders.
Anna Ivey has been living Generation Y every day. She counsels them as they navigate the working world after college and as they run off to graduate school to escape that world for a few more years. All day long she hears their biggest complaints and their dreams for the good life. Here's a sample of some of the things she's learned about the habits and tribal customs of today's twenty-somethings and the best ways to capture their hearts and minds at work.
1. Give them feedback.
This generation is obsessed with feedback. Half the time, they're not even hungry for new feedback; they just want to hear, over and over again, that the memo they wrote was well done, or that the presentation they gave was effective. What you think of as needy, they think of as a totally natural. And if they're not doing well on the job, they're handing you the perfect opportunity to tell them so, because they do respond well to constructive feedback and mentoring. That hunger for feedback should make your life as a manager easier, even if you find the neediness a bit much in the short run. The challenge for you will be learning how to give feedback to a generation that is used to nothing but gratuitous praise. Give them plenty of clearly defined benchmarks and metrics and milestones so that underperformance is not a surprise to them in their first performance review.
2. Give them teams.
In fact, they can't work without teams. And if you don't let them work in teams, they'll find a way to build them anyway, without any input from you. They hate making decisions by themselves, and they don't like to do things without getting six or eight or twenty different opinions first. If you don't give them a group to run things by, they'll seek opinions from their cubicle mate, their girlfriend, and their dentist. That approach can lead to crummy results, stunt their leadership growth, and paralyze them when they discover that seeking eight different opinions results in eight conflicting suggestions. However, those are all management issues that can be handled if you're aware of them, and the upside is that you can use that preference for teamwork to pair up more senior employees with more junior ones -- pairings that everyone says they want, but that many employers don't make a priority.
3. Be prepared to negotiate.
Since these young adults could talk, they have been negotiating with a generation of parents who've had a real distaste for imposing rules and who have been loathe to serve as authority figures ("Here's why it's a good idea to wear your dancing froggy raincoat today..."). They've spent their entire college careers negotiating grades and deadlines and feeling entitled to accommodations for anything under the sun... or having their parents do that for them. They do not respond to top-down orders because they haven't encountered them before. You may be the first real authority figure they encounter, and real authority will come as a shock to them. This generation will question anything you ask them to do and expect to be persuaded why they should do what you -- their boss -- is asking of them. And be prepared for mom and dad to jump in and try to negotiate on your employee's behalf.
4. Give them lots of small deadlines.
They can't get anything done without them, and then they'll wait until the last second to start. They treat their work assignments as if they were college term papers to be written the night before the due date, for professors who often no longer enforce deadlines in the first place. This generation has trouble with longer deadlines and project management, not least because they are used to their parents managing their lives for them. It now falls to you, corporate America, to teach them basic time and project management techniques.
5. Flatter them.
They think very highly of themselves. To older generations they seem arrogant and overconfident, and it's true that they have little respect for acquired wisdom, age, or a higher spot on the org chart. They will show up on their first day of work and think they can do your job better than you can. They will also expect management responsibility on their first jobs out of college. However, they are also enormously creative and love to identify and solve problems. If you can see past your initial irritation, you might find them dropping some great ideas in your lap from day one. If you can harness that creativity and penchant for problem-solving, your business will benefit.
6. Don't assume technology savvy.
Despite what the media says, they are savvy only about certain kinds of technology. They can type ten-page memos on the go with their thumbs and will happily program your cell phone for you and seem to spend half their days on Facebook, but many of them have only the most primitive experience using corporate workhorse software. A surprising number are stumped by those magical little round things called bullets and plenty of other basic features corporate veterans across America take for granted. We have heard plenty of twenty-somethings ooh and aah at heavy-duty enterprise software. They're much more familiar with stripped down, free software and mobile apps.
The good news is that they're quick on the uptake and absolutely fearless about learning new technology. The bad news is that they are overconfident and won't ever confess ignorance about how to use a piece of software -- not because they're proud, but because it doesn't occur to them that they haven't already mastered it just by clicking a few buttons. Their overconfidence can sometimes wreak real havoc, so make sure to teach them the basics of productivity software even if they don't ask (and they won't - they'll just hit that delete button, wipe out the database of your most important sales leads, and then cheerfully lecture you about how to use technology more efficiently).
7. Teach them how they're making a difference.
After they get out of college, they go through various degrees of frustration and existential angst as they realize they won't get paid well do to what is essentially volunteer work. Their entire childhoods and college applications have hammered into them that it's their volunteer work that makes them productive and decent human beings. Even when they come to realize that only private industry makes big paychecks possible, on a daily basis they struggle with that tension between wanting to make six figures right out of the gate and dedicating themselves to non-profit work, especially when every day they are bombarded with images of Angelina Jolie and Bono living the celebrity lifestyle while jetting about to solve third-world poverty. Understand that any Gen Y employee in the for-profit sector is going to feel that pull towards the non-profit world, so you have to show them how they can do good while in private enterprise.
8. Give them flexibility and expect high-maintenance workplace preferences.
They are willing to work hard and think nothing of being "findable" at all hours -- they are permanently online anyway. In exchange, they don't want bosses to abuse that findability, and they expect the flexibility to mold their work lives around their personal lives. Don't haul them in over the weekend or make them eat their twentieth conference-room dinner in a row unless there's good reason. They will expect to be able to leave in the middle of the day for yoga class and will wonder why there are no vegan offerings in the company cafeteria. Universities have been accommodating their preferences for years, and it will come as a shock to them if your workplace doesn't. That doesn't mean you have to create a meditation room, but understand that they have been spoiled by their schools in that regard, and normal work environments will come as a shock to them.
9. Teach them how to work face-to-face.
More experienced workers know that sometimes you need to sit in the same room to get something accomplished, but twenty-somethings would rather just send you a text message. You'll have to insist on a live meeting to get one. They also need to be taught how to interact professionally when meeting with clients and senior colleagues.
10. Teach them how to write.
Their writing - especially professional writing - is atrocious. They are willing to learn if you are willing to teach them. College does not teach them how to write, and it's now your job to do so.
11. Assume they're venting about you online.
They think nothing of complaining about work to the whole world on MySpace or their blogs and will happily use company email to complain about you, the company, the office refrigerator, and the idiot in the next cubicle. You may be surprised to discover what they are saying online, and you'll likely have to have a conversation about the propriety of venting in public and using company resources to do so. Because they are also used to publicizing all the details of their private lives electronically and for all eternity, they will not feel particularly deterred by your company's policy to monitor or document company email messages. You'll have to educate them about what kinds of things they can't say using company email.
12. Tell them what you'll do for them.
That attitude may drive you crazy, but they think of a "dream job" as their birthright, even in times of high unemployment. If they are employed, they think of whatever current job they have as a temporary stop until they move onto something better. If they're unemployed, they'll hold out for the "perfect job" with their parents' blessing and financing. Many of them will move back home, unemployed, rather than "sell their souls." If you aren't offering their dream job, you may have to pitch them hard, even when they're not currently employed. Believe it or not, many parents are telling them to hold out.
13. Reward them intelligently.
Young investment bankers work their tails off, but they don't gripe nearly as much as, say, young lawyers do, because their work environment is much more of a meritocracy than a lock-step reward system. The best performers should be rewarded more than mediocre ones... quite a bit more. And guess what: they can do math. If that "bonus" you're paying amounts to $20 an hour in exchange for canceled vacations or delayed surgery, they're going to feel insulted no matter how high you drive up their base salaries. And finally: unlike Gen Xers back in the day, they aren't nearly as wowed by cool views or foosball tables or free junk food or even casual dress codes (much as they need a lesson on dressing professionally). They are, however, dazzled by the latest and greatest technology that lets them do their jobs more efficiently and get the heck out of the office.
14. Feed their entrepreneurialism.
They consider themselves free agents, and however hard they work for you, they are plotting their escape to start their own ventures. The more you can indulge their entrepreneurial instincts on the job, the less likely they will be to defect.
15. Facilitate their lives outside of work.
Once they're out in the working world, they are hungry for the intellectual growth and extracurricular opportunities they took for granted in school. Facilitating their continuing education and hobbies goes a long way toward keeping them happy... and on the job.
Who's the Boss?
Should the entire working world bend to the preferences of Gen Y? Of course not. But smart organizations and managers will find a way to refine Gen Y's talents and quirks and help them grow into effective, productive professionals and leaders who add great value to your organization.