Workplace Uprising: Gen Y’s demand a new approach to management

March 1, 2012

Workplace Uprising: Gen Y’s demand a new approach to management

By Sandra Boyd, Principal, Knightsbridge’s Career Solutions Practice

He was a senior executive in his 50s, a man who had fought his way up the corporate ladder by demonstrating resilience and intestinal fortitude. He thought he was prepared for anything his work life could throw at him. He was wrong.

The team he was managing was much younger, with most in their late 20s and early 30s. He managed his team the way he had been managed throughout his career: long hours, demanding deadlines, and uncompromising expectations. He didn’t want to be their friend; he wanted to get the job done.

Unfortunately, this executive was not prepared for the fact that his team – from a different generation with a much different view of how their professional lives should unfold – would rebel against his bygone values. What he intended as a strong, resolved managerial style was received by his team as bully tactics and they began to push back.

At first, this rebellion was confined to water cooler complaining sessions.Then, it evolved into an all out revolt where team members exchanged messages through Facebook and Twitter, hatching a plan to go over the manager’s head to the executive team. After repeated attempts to mediate a truce, the executive team decided to terminate the manager.

Was this a case of a bully getting his just deserts? Or was this yet another example of Generation Y’s unaccountable culture of expectation?

At the core, it was probably a bit of both. The “tough” manager is now being seen as the “bully” manager. Why? Managerial culture that was considered appropriate even a decade ago – a culture where an employer’s rules and working conditions were accepted without question – is no longer tolerated by younger generations.

Younger workers want more balance between work and personal lives, are not as loyal to their employers, and are much more willing to switch jobs rather than deal with what they consider to be unacceptable conditions. They want not only to work from home, but they also want the tools to make that possible. They want to keep flexible hours and, in general, do not want to endure the limitless workweek their parents accepted without question.

And, as demonstrated in this case, they are more than capable of rising up to challenge unpopular managers. With an array of social media tools to keep them linked, younger generations are profoundly tribal. They share more of the intimate details of their working lives, who they like working for and who they don’t like. They will even compare salaries, a phenomenon many older generation employees cannot even fathom.

Employers can read the writing on the wall. Organizations from all sectors and disciplines are rushing to re-train managers and evolve their cultures based on a hard realization: the way we managed previously, and the things we have traditionally done to be successful, are not going to be successful today.

A new approach 
Developing a new managerial style appears to be, at first blush, a rather daunting challenge. It will require a thoughtful approach, where old, preconceived notions are challenged and replaced with contemporary practices and policies. And it all starts with a small list of priorities that are the key to unlocking the potential of younger employees without resorting to bully tactics:

  1. View your employees through a different lens. It is important to view younger employees with objectivity. Their expectations are not evidence of a lack of loyalty or a lazy work ethic. They are not disrespectful, but they do expect managers to earn their respect. It will not be given unconditionally.
  2. Leading by example is now more important than ever. Managers need to demonstrate the same work ethic and commitment they expect from the employees they supervise. Hypocrisy is a fatal flaw in the minds of younger generations. If you want loyalty, demonstrate loyalty. Measured, respectful dialogue will be rewarded with respectful responses.
  3. Keep them in the loop. Younger employees don’t mind demanding assignments, but they would like to know why they’re being asked to work overtime or give up a weekend for a special project. Context is extremely important. It makes the younger generations feel they are part of a team, as opposed to a cog in a wheel. The want collaboration, not just demands. The one-way edict must give way to two-way communication.

Does a new approach to management mean surrendering to the demands of one group of employees?

Should employers simply wave the white flag and give in to any and all demands from younger employees? Certainly not. Fuelled in part by the lingering influence of their parents, some younger employees are interested only in getting more without having to do more.

Gen Y, for example, carries a negative stereotype as a generation that is full of high expectations but lacking a commensurate work ethic. Professional service companies are rife with anecdotes about younger employees, and their parents, making all kinds of outrageous demands while demonstrating virtually no loyalty to the employer. As is the case with many stereotypes, there is more than a grain of truth to this negative image of Gen Y.

However, this is a flaw that can be managed. Taking the time to fully explain the full context of an assignment, and clarity about why the work is important, not only appease younger employees, it gives them a clear path to success.

Draw a line in the sand and let all of your younger employees know not only what is expected of them, but also why the work is important to the organization. Hand out discipline in a fair and moderate fashion, with the goal of correcting the employee’s attitude without bully tactics. This will ultimately deny dissident employees from gaining support within the tribe.

There will be many organizations that will see this approach as coddling younger workers. However, employers have met generational challenges before and succeeded in changing the culture to adapt to new generations. Consider how rampant sexual harassment was two decades ago. The standards for treatment of women that were widely accepted have gone the way of the dinosaur. The workplace can change, and change for the better. More importantly, remember that the culture you are building to connect with younger generation will provide older generation employees with many of the things they have always wanted from their employers, but were perhaps afraid to enunciate. 

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