Managing Gen Y: The Gift of Context

To manage Gen Y, you may need to give them the gift of context. How do they fit in, in the context of your organization, its mission, values and strategic plans? This may seem obvious, but just telling them how your company runs may not be enough. (Image credit Vlado)

The trap in discussing ways to best manage Gen Y is to think in terms of “us vs them.” The point of my series of blog posts, which was reiterated in lively LinkedIn discussions such as in the Linked 2 Leadership Group, is not to stereotype any one generational group.

I’ve noticed a trend when someone tells a story about a young person’s behavior at work: people love to jump in and say, “Right! Those Gen Yers are always trying to inject their opinions when they should be listening and learning!”

Grouping people together and labeling has never been a wise management practice. Leaders and managers know everyone’s got unique strengths and weaknesses. There are plenty of Boomer managers with Gen Y tech skills, just as there are younger, inexperienced employees with a talent for leadership. (Read this: Tired of Generational Wars? Me Too, by Betty Doo.)

However, when trying to manage younger generations, it’s helpful to know how the differences show up at work. Not to signal them out as wrong, but to leverage the differences so as to bring out the best in people within the context of the organization, its mission, values, and the goals of the job.

And that’s the point I’m trying to make. Perhaps more importantly, I’m trying to figure out how leadership and management must change, how we can adapt to the new wave of people entering organizations in this decade and the next. Managers have always had to deal with generational issues, and often developmental issues.

Age and life circumstances are part of the employee. We know that. What we don’t fully understand yet is what makes this generation truly different from the others. How can we as managers be prepared to lead young people who may be typical in some ways, and unique in others?

One of the books I’m reading is Bruce Tulgan’s Not Everyone Gets a Trophy. Tulgan reminds us that many young people were brought up in a child-centric era where adults genuinely wanted to know their opinions and encouraged them to have high self esteem. Some may lack the ability to see context, to see where they fit in.

“Giving Gen Yers the gift of context means explaining that no matter who that GenYer may be, what he wants to achieve, or how he wants to behave, his role in any situation is determined in large part by factors that have nothing to do with him. There are preexisting, independent factors that would be present even if he were not, and they determine the context of any situation.

“…it is often difficult for people, Gen Yers in particular, to be sensitive to more subtle contexts, particularly when they walk into new situations. Every situation has a context that limits possibilities and limits the scope of an individual’s potential role.

“The big mistake leaders and managers often make is allowing Gen Yers to remain in their vacuum. Telling Gen Yers all about the company is not the same as giving them context. Telling Gen Yers, ‘This is how it was for me when I was a new employee,’ is not giving them context. Understanding context is about understanding where one fits in the larger picture.”

Knowing that Gen Yers come from different child-raising standards helps us to understand them better. If you know someone doesn’t see the organizational context, you can help them learn it. You can give them assignments to discover different roles and functions in the organization and how strategic plans play out in day to day operations.

What do you think about Tulgan’s comments?

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