Managing Generation Y

Bruce Tulgan doesn't have all the answers. But he has all the questions.

Tulgan, a leadership and performance-management expert and founder of Rainmaker Thinking in New Haven, Connecticut, says he has been doing research “on the front lines of the workplace” for the past 12 years, measuring the management practices of 700 organizations by asking a multitude of non-multiple-choice questions and using the answers to help train thousands of managers.

One of his favorite questions: Why is it getting so much harder to manage people?

He said the workplace is becoming more and more high-pressure and the workforce is becoming more and more high-maintenance.

When he starts working with a group of leaders and managers, the first thing they say to him — no matter how senior they are in the organization — is, “Listen pal, I've got a boss, too, and I'm getting squeezed. He's in here on a regular basis, saying, ‘Hey, listen, we're raising the bar.’ Or, ‘We're cutting the budget. We just need all of your people to work longer, harder, smarter, faster, and better. I'm glad we had this chat.’ And I'm like, ‘I'm really glad we had this conversation.’ ”

When the manager relays this message to his employees, they do not salute. Here's how Tulgan says the conversation goes:

Employee: “Oh, yeah, I'm glad you came to talk to me, because there's something I wanted to talk to you about. I don't think I can work on Thursdays anymore.”

Boss: “No, no, we're raising the bar.”

Employee: “Come on, we're dead. Everything we do is 24/7, 365, urgent, and important. Our lives are on the line.”

Boss: “We're raising the bar.”

Said Tulgan, “Most leaders and managers tell us, ‘Look, I'm stuck in the middle. My boss is squeezing me and my employees are squeezing me. Meanwhile, I have too many people to manage. Some of the people I manage work different schedules than I work, some work in a different location, some tasks and responsibilities I've never done before, or I haven't done in years. And meanwhile, I'm busy. I'm not just a manager. I have a bunch of my own work to do.’

“They're telling us that the workplace is becoming more and more high pressure. There's no more time for down time, waste, or inefficiency. Everybody's getting squeezed. Markets are getting tough. Resource needs are unpredictable. Everybody's under pressure. And in this high-pressure environment, the workforce is getting more high-maintenance.”

Self-esteem on steroids

He said he stumbled upon this by accident in the early 1990s, when Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1977) was reasonably young. The older, more experienced people were looking at them and saying, “You've got some attitude.”

“There's a long-range term we use to describe this phenomenon: We call it ‘Kids today,’ ” he said. “Of course, there's a part of this story that is just a developmental-stage issue. It's part of being young. But we try to figure out, ‘Where do these life-stage issues intersect with the accidents of history that make each generation a little bit different and the challenge of managing each generation a little bit different and the challenge of developing each generation a little bit different?’

“Generation Xers have grown up a little bit. If you liked Generation X, you're going to love the folks that come after Generation X, because they're like Generation X on fast-forward, with self-esteem on steroids.”

He said Generation Y (born after 1977) — which makes up 23% of the workforce — is going to be the most high-maintenance workforce in the world, but also is going to be the highest-performing.

He said they show up on the first day of work with very high expectations. The conversation goes like this:

Gen Y: “I'm here!”

Boss: “Oh, yeah. We forgot you were starting today. Why don't you go over these documents from HR while I figure out where you're going to work?”

Gen Y: “But it's me. Don't you remember me from the interview?”

Boss: “I remember. I just forgot you were starting today. Believe it or not, this is just Monday. I've been here for 30 years.”

Gen Y: “I've made a list of 127 things we should change about the company.”

Boss: “Yeah, but you've been here five minutes. Why don't you go over these documents?”

Tulgan says Generation Y does not have greater wants or needs than previous generations, but it does have greater expectations.

“Every single one wants to create a custom deal for themselves,” he said. “They want to identify problems nobody else has identified, solve problems nobody else has solved. They want to invent things and make existing things smarter, faster, and better. This is why a lot of older, more experienced people say, ‘They walk in on day one and it's like they want my job.’ ”

Busting the myths

Tulgan said the first big myth is that they're so focused on doing the interesting tasks that they won't do grunt work.

“They are so eager to prove themselves to you and themselves, but there are two catches,” he said. “They won't do grunt work or anything else if they start to fear they're out of mind. If they're out of sight for long, they start to worry they're out of mind. They want to know that somebody's keeping track. They also won't do grunt work in exchange for vague promises about long-term rewards that may or may not happen in the distant future: ‘Here's what you get in five years. Here's what you get in 10 years. Here's what you get in 15 years.’ They don't like that.

“In a highly uncertain world, people don't focus long-term. It used to be you could expect young upstarts to keep their head down and do as they were told. But nobody trusts the system to take care of them in the long term anymore. People focus on short term. The question on their mind every day is, ‘Hey, what's the deal around here right now?’ ”

Tulgan cited three reasons why they think they're so valuable:

  • They are

    “They walk in the door with more information in their heads and available at their fingertips than anyone ever has.”

  • They are

    “There's not one of them worth hiring who's going to go, ‘Well, I'm going to keep my mouth shut and get a feel for the place.’ They want to hit the ground running. Sometimes this is frustrating for more experienced people because they want to do things they're not ready for.”

  • The impact of positive tolerance

    “As of the mid-1980s, parenting, teaching, and counseling became about building up the self-esteem of our children. It used to be that parents saw their role, in part, as breaking their child's will to make them humble before God. Not anymore. Now it's, ‘Whatever you say or do is just great.’ Child psychologists have a term for it: positive tolerance. I can't tell you how many young people I've interviewed who tell me, ‘They give me a hard time for coming in late.’ All of this emphasis on childhood self-esteem is working. They feel great about themselves. You want to think about how to prepare the next generation to move into leadership roles. And they're already thinking about buying the company.”

He said this makes them high-maintenance, because it's not all about information and technology.

“You say, ‘They don't have the experience, the context, and the wisdom,’ ” he said. “And you're right. Those are the things you can't accelerate the learning curve on. They have to get them from you.”

He said the second big myth is that they only want to learn from technology and computers.

“They also want to learn from you,” he said. “Generation Y is the great over-supervised generation. They just want to work with people who are willing to spend time in guiding, directing, and supporting them, and giving them the wisdom they can't get from anywhere else. And the problem is that leaders and supervisors are not used to spending time holding their hands.

“I have some solutions, but they are difficult. You have to get in there and help them, because you can't hold them back. That's the only way you're going to keep them, grow them, and develop them — if you invest time and energy. If you don't believe me, ask some people who work in the US Army or Marine Corps. Those are the two most effective human-development programs in the history of the world, and the two most effective employers of young people today. Their approach is hands-on leadership every step of the way.

“We have to surround technology with the human touch. You have to grow and develop them. You just can't do that by being hands-off and expecting them to pay their dues and climb the ladder and wait for the system to take care of them. It's just not going to happen.”

Boss is a jerk

Tulgan said if they think their boss is a jerk, it's more often because he's weak — not because he's strong.

“You have to be strong before anything goes wrong,” he said. “If you only go in and manage them when things go wrong, there are difficult confrontations.

“Here's the really good news: You don't have to be a natural leader to be good at guiding, directing, and supporting the new workforce. You just have to practice the basics of management. The answer to this new-fangled workforce is not a new-fangled solution. The answer is back-to-basics.

“That is what is missing everywhere we go. When we talk to leaders, they are looking for succession planning. The problem is that it appears on a piece of paper. It's two-dimensional. But real succession planning has to happen in a world that's three-dimensional, with real people. Here's the old-fashioned back-to-basics approach to turning the new generation of workers into strength for leadership: Roll up your sleeves and spend some time with them.”

He said his company asks 17,000 managers every month: What is the hardest thing for you about managing people?

His favorite response: “When they fail to meet the unspoken expectations.”

“Well, I have an idea: Speak to them,” he said. “If you want people to do things, you've got to tell them. If you want to keep them, you've got to work with them every single day.”

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