New @ Work: Three Tips to Help Gen Ys Adapt

By Alicia Blain

By 2002, I had been leading teams and managing people for more than 20 years. While I didn’t think I knew it all, I was convinced there was nothing about managing people I had not seen. But that was before I hired Jay, a bright Gen Y. After less than a month, I was ready to fire him. He clearly did not understand or embrace how the workplace worked. But to fire him meant going through the whole hiring rigmarole again, and HR kept sending me resumes of more Gen Ys.

With so many Gen Ys entering the workplace, I could not avoid them . I decided to put Gen Y, also known as the Millennials, under the microscope. I turned my team into a living, breathing laboratory of the inner workings of Gen Y.


Although the laboratory was filled with “aha” moments, the most valuable revelation to me, as a leader was this: Working in corporate America is an enormous shock for most Gen Ys. Although we are 11 years into the 21st century, the workplace -- for the most part -- remains entrenched in the 20th century way of doing business. Why? Our leaders (with few exceptions) cut their management teeth on the 20th-century model of corporate America.


The seismic shift during the last decade in how we live and work is imbedded like a microchip in all Gen Ys – those born between 1980 and 2000. The way they are wired as individuals and consequently as employees, goes against many of the accepted norms of the 20th century model of workplace protocol. If this fact is not recognized and managed properly, it could create disengagement among Gen Y workers, or perhaps result in a continuous exodus of great young talent from organizations.


There are three key areas where Gen Ys clash with that 20th century default setting for how work generally gets accomplished inside an organization: Experimentation, Collaboration, and Movement.


Tried and True vs. Trial and Error. Millennials are natural experimenters. They love to try new things, mix and match, mutate, fail and try again. Whether it is because of all the video games they played as kids or because of parents and teachers who encouraged their creativity, Gen Ys like experimentation. Yet in the workplace, experimentation often takes a back seat to the tried-and-true, once-and-done methods.


Tip #1: Career practitioners can help Gen Ys tackle this dilemma in two ways. First, as career professionals working inside the organization they can share a bit of the history behind an organization’s preference for the tried and true. Gen Ys work better when they understand the ’why‘ of things. When they know the back story, it minimizes their frustration.


Second, every organization has areas where trial and error is needed and welcomed. For example, technology groups are always looking for volunteers to test new products or tools; marketing looks in-house to test ideas and for focus groups. These opportunities channel Gen Ys need for experimentation. Innovation contests also are a good outlet, as is an environment where they can use their social media skills. Such things as setting up a blog for a VP, creating a video of what the team does, creating a team Wiki or tracking news of the company on the Twittersphere keep Gen Ys motivated. All these actions help Gen Ys build credibility and visibility while growing their careers.


Work out Loud vs. Confidentiality. Gen Ys are wired to be highly collaborative and share everything with their tribe. Imagine their shock when they are faced with a virtual lockdown of information at work. An environment that favors confidentiality feels restrictive.


Tip #2: Career practitioners can help Gen Ys accept the “need to know” nature of the workplace. Most Gen Ys cannot recall a time when they didn’t collaborate and share as a way of operating in the world; to them, the workplace is an extension of their world. That is why the rationale behind the monumental number of rules and policies governing today’s workplaces needs to be explained.


There are times when their collaboration and need to share are beneficial for the company. In this century, the line between employee and consumer is blurred. Employees can be wonderful advocates for a company’s brand. Unleash Gen Y in the right circumstances and they will deliver great results while being engaged and excited.


Walk, Don’t Run. Because Gen Ys easily absorbed the seismic shifts of the past decade, they think everyone else has, too. While previous generations have observed, acknowledged and reacted to the shifts, it is not imbedded in their personal or corporate DNA.


Millennials do not know that the world of work has not yet caught up to their way of living and working. They want to run when they should be walking. Walking means they focus on the individual contributions they bring to the workplace instead of the collective ones they usually leverage. The workplace still rewards individual contribution, yet Gen Ys are more comfortable collaborating in a group setting.


Tip #3: Career practitioners can guide Gen Y toward training. Training dollars that were once spent on computer training and teamwork, can now be used for topics such as critical thinking, problem solving, working with ambiguity and written and verbal communications which Gen Yers need to learn.


Plugging into the nuances and specific requirements that Gen Y workers need to succeed also helps career professionals upgrade the default settings of the leaders in their organizations. More important, by helping Millennials understand that the world of work is imperfect and that change is a process, the groundwork is laid for them to understand the organization and stay engaged and committed to it.


Eventually, as their numbers increase and their influence grows, Gen Ys will begin to run. As career practitioners, you can be the trusted advisors of this first generation of 21st century leaders. They will remember you as the person who made sense of a workplace not yet ready for them.



Alicia BlainAlicia Blain

A former senior executive of a Fortune 500 company, Alicia Blain was so impressed with the contributions and talents of Millennials in the workplace that she founded The Millennial Lab to help managers and leaders harness the Gen Y potential. She speaks, conducts workshops and consults on the topic, and is creator of a popular blog on Millennials.

Alicia received her M.B.A in Finance and International Economics from Northwestern University’s J.L. Kellogg School of Management and her B.A. in Economics and French from Fordham University in New York. In her new ebook, New @ Work: An Insider’s Survival Guide for a Crazy Workplace, she shares the insider realities of the workplace with college and MBA students and provides a Success GPS for their first year on the job. In her second ebook, scheduled for release in the fall, she supplies Millennials with a roadmap to become high-potential performers in their organizations.

Alicia can be reached at: ablain@aliciablain.com. Follow her on Twitter at:@aliciablain.com or visit her website at: www.aliciablain.com.

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Mary Ghilani   on Tuesday 08/02/2011 at 03:05 PM

Good article! Thanks for the tips on how to work with Gen Y.

Alicia Blain   on Tuesday 08/02/2011 at 04:41 PM

Thanks, Mary. Glad you liked the article!

Amy Stephens   on Friday 08/26/2011 at 02:36 PM

Thanks for the helpful article.
Wonderful tips on a very important topic.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.