Are you struggling to understand, motivate, engage and retain your Generation Y employees? Given the amount of attention being paid to the under-30 members of the work force and the persistent hand-wringing over their supposedly unique needs, qualities and expectations, it is taken for granted that HR and line managers alike need a different set of tools and techniques to manage Millennial employees.
The unrelenting focus on what’s different about Generation Y can deflect managers’ attention from investing in the core motivational aspects of work and workplace relationships. For instance, there’s a huge amount of back and forth about the appealing and unappealing qualities of Generation Y. Many authors praise their idealism, confidence and open-mindedness. Yet there is also a backlash from people who think Generation Y needs to tone down its expectations for rich, rewarding and enjoyable employment experiences and fall into line with the rest of the employee ranks. If the doting “helicopter parents” who raised Millennials on a diet of frequent praise created the most entitled generation ever, “helicopter employers” are making similar mistakes by indulging their expectations that the business world owes them work experiences customized to their preferences.
With all due respect to the industry that has sprung up to help employers understand their Generation Y employees, it is important to keep in mind that integrating the newest generation into the ones already in the workforce is a perpetual challenge. It is easy to be distracted by the visible stylistic differences of Generation Y (e.g., they are much more likely to have tattoos and piercings in places other than their earlobes, they speak and dress in ways different from older workers) while overlooking the more profound qualities that require evolution in management practice. Chief among these is that Gen Ys are digital natives who search, locate and share information reflexively and who are accustomed to engaging in digital conversations easily with a large network of people. This is what makes answering the question “why?” so important with regard to Generation Y. The danger of implementing Generation Y-focused engagement initiatives that respond to superficial differences—think ping-pong tables, Bring Your Dog To Work days, and encouraging your stodgy CEO to tweet—is that it’s easy for companies to think they’ve done all they need to do to foster intergenerational integration. No matter how hip and modern the design of your office is, it can’t make up for information silos or for managers who don’t have a clue how to help employees see how their own work contributes to the larger mission of the organization. And these types of workplace characteristics are the true engagement killers. But sadly, when engagement initiatives fail to produce fully engaged Gen Y employees, the managers behind them may throw up their hands and conclude that the target employees are spoiled brats who just need to put their heads down and get to work.
There is no shortage of good research on what Generation Y wants at work. Aggregating a number of large-scale surveys shows that having opportunities for learning and development, work that is challenging and meaningful, and support for work-life integration consistently rise to the top their list. This non-exotic set of desired characteristics should not come as a huge surprise. In fact, it’s nearly identical to what Generation X wants. But delivering these key elements doesn’t come naturally to many firms. The bottom line is that getting the most from—and giving the most to—Generation Y employees requires a management style and a culture that emphasizes understanding and valuing employees as individuals, coaching, and helping employees do what they care about well.
The most promising approaches to engaging Generation Y take a multi-pronged approach to build high-quality developmental connections between managers and their employees. They support employees in identifying and pursuing responsibilities that connect with their strengths, interests, and learning goals while also contributing value to the firm. For example, Price Waterhouse Coopers aims to create a coaching culture in its offices around the world. “We tell our young employees, ‘you have to take responsibility for your own career,’” says Erik Van den Branden, Director of Human Resources at PwC in Brussels. The idea is to create an environment in which employees have multiple opportunities each year to talk about the project they are working on and the work they are doing on a daily basis, as well as their longer-term professional and life goals and challenges. While coaching conversations are scheduled at least twice per year, Van den Branden says that they may occur as often as monthly for the youngest employees.
Generation Y employees may already have heard that they need to take charge of their own careers, but they still need support to do so. Exposure to different areas of a firm is indispensable for Gen Ys to develop a broad understanding of the business and a network of relationships in the organization, which in turn helps them to identify where they can fit in best and contribute most. Assuming a young employee identifies a project or responsibility they’d like to take on, how do they engage in a productive conversation with a senior person who is in a position to act on their request? This is one of many instances in which a coaching culture is invaluable, says Van den Branden, because it makes such conversations normal and expected, and it conveys to managers that coaching is an important competency. He believes it is important to support the firms’ employees in reflecting on and clarifying their learning and career objectives, even when this process may ultimately lead them to pursue opportunities outside of the firm. And so the firm trains its managers to coach employees, and also assesses them on how well they coach.
It’s time to move beyond “What does Generation Y want?” The more important encapsulating question is, “How do we help employees to make progress at performing work they care about every day?” Building systematic support for coaching throughout the organization is a powerful way to address the desire for learning, development, and meaningful work that’s been documented among Generation Y. Employers who make progress on this will strengthen engagement not just among their under-30 employees, but throughout their entire work force.
Monique Valcour, Professor of Management, EDHEC Business School