by Tom McBride


The Challenging Y Chromosome:

 Five Mistakes Managers Make

With their Gen Y Employees….


#1: Managers fail to recognize that the high-tech savvy of this generation—unparalleled in history—masks their lack of low-tech skills.

#2. Managers fail to perceive the nuances of Gen Y work habits.

#3: Managers associate giving new employees what they want with an inevitable and perilous loss of authority.  

#4: Mangers become overly impressed with the widespread meme about Gen Y: that they expect to change jobs many, many times.

#5: Managers will try to tell, not show, Gen Y worker what to do.


In some ways Gen Y is like any other young generation. It’s provincial, for instance—not in the sense that its members have never left Fargo or Manhattan but that they are overly smitten by the events of their own lifetimes. This isn’t surprising. The Kennedy murder or Pearl Harbor or the Challenger blow-up “defined” many of us oldsters. We get irritated when the young and restless don’t know about or understand these things. So when a young person says that the 9/11 disasters were just like Pearl Harbor—“our” Pearl Harbor, they say–we shouldn’t be surprised, even though the parallels between 9/11 and Pearl Harbor are strained.

So young people were provincial before; they’re provincial now. When we were young, the country was arguing about health care, immigration, and the size of government. It still is. So tell me something new. But there is something new about Gen Y—we could call it the Gen Y Chromosome—and managers will err if they don’t take these things into account. Yet Gen Y will also be in error if they don’t take into account the reality of the workplace, a world most of them have never confronted much before. Sure, they’ve had internships, but they aren’t the same thing as becoming a workaday stiff for the rest of your life.

What are the common mistakes made by managers in dealing with this bunch, and how can they be prevented or rectified? Let us count the ways.

#1: Managers fail to recognize that the high-tech savvy of this generation—unparalleled in history—masks their lack of low-tech skills.

Yes, they can probably fix the company computers all by themselves, but can they write (or speak) in ways that the organization should deem effective? For that matter, are their writing norms in the company? Are they explicit or just part of the folk culture? And what should Gen Y need to learn about those norms?

Here managers might recall how their own professors urged them to follow simple advice in writing a college paper: Tell us what you are going to tell us; tell us; and finally tell us what you have told us. It’s a great formula and a wonderful courtesy to readers looking for maps and road signs. But how many of us followed it? And for that matter how many of our professors even told us to do that? So we have a group of new Gen Y workers that a. may have written their share of long, disorganized term papers; b. may have walked on the wild side by writing entries into their personal “blogs”; and c. may have tweeted and posted on Facebook or texted short messages on their smart phones.

The point is that none of these is applicable to the sort of writing required in the company or agency. So the generation that can reprogram your call phone for you probably can’t write well within an organizational context.  

This has been true of previous generations, but this time there are differences. First, this is a generation that comes into an office demonstrably ahead of older workers in high-tech savvy, and workers younger and older are likely to be overly impressed with that fact while failing to see that the new kids are not ahead in more obvious, low-tech abilities. Second, Gen Y has done the sort of quirky writing (blogging) and instant writing (Twitter, Facebook, Smart Phones) that they might be tempted to transfer to the company. They have never written in bullets, for instance; and they may have little understanding of the elegance of parallel construction. They have written in college, where professors are paid to read what they write. They have never written in an organization where no one in particular may want to read what they write. They have never written in a milieu in which there is already a huge traffic of memos and reports—an environment in which they will have to work with skill in order to get their communication read. They have had scant experience with the concept of “need to know,” that some communications need to be written so that different readers can take from it as much detail as they need.

How do they write in order to make that happen? What are the possible formats? What are the standards? Thus an excellent place to start with Gen Y is to focus on their decidedly old-fashioned communication skills, but that won’t happen unless managers recognize that they will likely come into their new setting lacking these skills. 

#2. Managers fail to perceive the nuances of Gen Y work habits.

This is a generation that has developed staggered and informal work habits for a very simple reason: because they have been able to. They have been able to work anywhere, and they are the first full generation that has not been chained to the library or wherever their typewriter happens to be. They have been able to carry their libraries around with them—yes, of course they still read and consult books and journals—but they also carry around with them on the I-Pads much more information that is contained in the Britannica and World Book encyclopedias combined. And they can process papers anywhere. It’s no wonder that they take lots of short breaks; they can afford to. Gone are the days when you a. had to devote four hours to the library because that’s where all the info was; b. could then take a couple of hours off for dinner or some sports or maybe even a quick game of gin rummy before c. heading to your room and typing the whole business out. Now they can literally jog while checking out data sets on their Droids. It’s not that they’re likely to do so, but never low-ball their ingenuity in multi-tasking.

Yet the office is in many ways back to the 1980s because they are expected to stay in one place for a long time. Their on-campus work habits–perhaps more than anything else–prompt the desire for flex-time on the job: heading to the gym at 4 (an hour before quitting time) because they can always telecommute after dinner, perhaps for not one more hour but even two or three. In their view managers will get 9 or 10 hours a day out of them—just not consecutively. It’s not that they’re lazy or don’t want to work. It’s that they’re used to working in shifts, some of them “alarmingly” short. What’s a manager to do?

The problem is compounded even if managers, having decided that they’re actually getting more work out of their Gen Y employees this way, have to deal with older employees who don’t work this way. Charges of special privilege may never be made openly, but they will be in the air. Morale can easily decline. Still, there are ways around these dilemmas. First, managers might explain to their Gen Y employees that they have to manage a multi-generational work place. A frank declaration that “I cannot give you all the flex-time privileges you want, at least not right away” will help. And then there is the advantage of younger employees developing a track record. Older employees will less resent a younger employee who has played by the existing rules for a year or so, made good company in the workplace, done some effective collaboration, and achieved some real productivity. Only then should managers broach the subject of “different work styles” on the job. Only then might the manager wish to invoke the “bottom line” as his real measuring stick—and not whether hours are consecutive.

Part of the desirable picture here is educating the new employees about the problems and responsibilities of managers, and that can come informally from the managers themselves or, perhaps even better, from a solid orientation session. So many companies assume that new employees can figure out organizational customs on their own, but while it is generally true that folks must live “ways of life” in order to understand them, a road map never hurts and often helps.

Bottom line: The flexible working habits of Gen Y present both challenges and opportunities that managers can handle in order to minimize the challenges and maximize the opportunities, even if they cannot finally resolve all the tensions.

#3: Managers associate giving new employees what they want with an inevitable and perilous loss of authority.  

Nothing strikes more fear into the hearts of managers than worry that they are pushovers. Managers are supposed to manage, and that would surely seem to involve bending people to their will, not being bent to the will of others. Now comes Generation Y, a group that has grown up with Helicopter Parents who often overscheduled them in activities from soccer to violin lessons and who encouraged their teachers and coaches to compliment the little tots on just showing up. This is a generation that tended to grow up with two-career parents who often “outsourced” them to day care, summer camp, and the aforementioned various lessons. (Life Coaches have not been out of the question!) These were parents who, perhaps insecure about their own lack of hands-on parenting, hired it out. It became consistent with the self-interest of those who had been hired to make the offspring of those who had hired them feel good about themselves. So Gen Y has grown up with lots of regular, positive and “quality” feedback.

The first thing to understand is that such feedback hasn’t been totally bad. There is something to be said for building confidence. The second thing: This doesn’t mean that Gen Y has subsequently been spoiled rotten. This is also the generation that has faced enormous pressure to succeed, with visits to campuses in the junior year of high school not unusual. Still, they like and expect this feedback. Managers are often anxious about giving out compliments. Won’t this mark me as a pushover? Won’t they come to expect this all the time? What will older workers think if they cath wind of this? On the other hand, managers also want their workers to be happy and productive, and Gen Y presents a special challenge here.

So how can managers steer between the need to manage with authority and the need to offer constant and encouraging feedback? One answer is to resist the myth that good management involves treating everyone the same. Dick Marannis’ study of Coach Vince Lombardi reveals that the coach did not treat all his Packers stars the same because he realized that each of them had a different motivational zone. This does not mean that Lombardi flaunted different treatments; he tended to apply them in private. But he recognized in the Upper Midwest, long before “diversity” was a buzzword in the rest of the country, that diversity was important.

Another answer: Do not confuse persistent feedback with always positive feedback. Rather, make all feedback relatively non-dramatic. Managers who veer from effusive to angry will perplex and demoralize workers from any generation. So give Gen Y employees their incessant assessments, but don’t make the positive too high or the negative too low.  Thus, managers should play within their own zone, and by example encourage Gen Y workers to do the same. Remember, too, that they can take negative feedback, but they like lots of feedback and like it delivered in a friendly tone. One can say, “You must do better” in a friendly tone. Remember, you’re still the boss. It might be said with wisdom that the successful manager is not the one who knows when to raise his or her voice as much as the one who rarely needs to do so at all.

And keep the feedback private, because that’s the context in which Gen Y is used to getting it.

#4: Mangers become overly impressed with the widespread meme about Gen Y: that they expect to change jobs many, many times.

Gen Y has grown up a world where the face of constant change has revealed itself to them every day. They have likely grown up with parents who were mobile. The days when Dad got a job in the bank in Zanesville, OH, while Mom stayed home and was always sure when it was Westinghouse have long gone. This has been a generation of movers. Mom and Dad have themselves changed jobs. They have switched on computers every day with different home pages on the same websites. The new new thing, or new next thing, has always been around. Even those as young as thirty-one say that the websites—especially the blog sites—of twenty-one year olds make them feel ancient. They just cannot “relate.” So flux is a given for Gen Y. They believe that the economy will require constant updating and job changing. They do not expect the permanent. They prefer to rent not just because owning a home isn’t the same good deal it used to be but also because they want to be able to get away quickly to Charlotte or Fresno or wherever the next job might be.

But suppose you are a manager who identifies a young employee whom you really want to stay with the company. Is it possible to convince her or him to do so? It is, but managers have to work at it. What can they do?

One answer: At the right time, approach the subject explicitly. Tilt against the idea that this is only a short-term deal. Second, depending on the nature of the organization, explain that there are tracks for career advancement and diversification of tasks—all under the same roof or at least under the same organization, even if locations may change. Third, because Gen Y is very civic-minded—they also tend to be liberal and to think that American life has improved since the 1960s—emphasize your organization’s public service, if you can. Give them time off—paid if you can—to perform such service. Gen Y believes in volunteerism, so stress that aspect, if possible, of what the company does. And here is one other possibility, even if it might be a long shot and takes a very skilled manager to pull it off: Converse with them about how the distinctions between private enterprise and public service are often exaggerated. Building a better e-chip is a public service. It creates jobs and makes money that can be taxed, the revenues to be used for the sort of activist government that Gen Y believes in. This sort of viewpoint will not suffice as a substitute for a company that emphasizes civic virtue and volunteering, but it can complement such an emphasis.

In sum, Gen Yers may well stay with organizations that stress advancement and job variety; that emphasize new challenges; that (in time) can offer more pragmatic work schedules; and that have a significant public service component. Good management helps, too. Many Gen Yers with good managers report that the loss of that manager may be the most traumatic moment in their short work lives. At that point, of course, the manager herself has departed, so the whole project has become moot!

#5: Managers will try to tell, not show, Gen Y worker what to do.

Gen Yers think of themselves as creative, and while this may be a self-delusional myth, it is an understandable one and it grows from their being Digital Natives. Many of them have almost grown up knowing how to program. They know, either by dint of practice or just by way of intuition, how to design websites. They are aware that Facebook came from a college campus.  Many of their friends are actually making a living as free-lancers, consulting on such projects as website design or e-publishing. Thus the idea of adhering to strict guidelines is something for which they will have less patience than older generations have had. They have something of a free-lancer’s attitude.

Once again managers have a choice: put their foot down and show them who’s boss; or try a little finessing. If the latter is the strategy of choice, then there are definite steps that can be taken in the care and feeding of bright new Gen Y employees.

One such step is to define, even at first in the abstract, the meaning of the word “parameters.” Make these limits as wide as possible. Explain that they provide focus and discipline, but that while some activities are clearly “beyond the pale,” many other approaches are not. This is a very difficult and artful thing to manage, but the idea that there are many ways to serve the aims of the organization—some of them not yet thought of—is well worth considering and promoting.

Second, after managers have communicated to Gen Y workers that parameters are definite but also rather wide, the next step if a frank admission that “how wide” probably cannot always be written down in advance with any great assurance. The tension between creativity and company aims and policies is one that will be played out of a case-by-case basis. But here is where the good, nuanced manager of Gen Y can play a huge role, for regular feedback and conversation can demonstrate, over time, the “way of life” in the company to the point where young workers will begin to “know” what is or is not wise or permissible creative initiative. This is also where showing, as opposed to telling, is central. We learned multiplication by multiplying, not by learning abstract rules. Someone “showed” us how to multiply. The same is true for managing, and most especially true for a generation that thinks of itself, often if not always rightly, as creative initiators.


In American literature there are two great stories about the workplace. One, “Bartelby the Scrivener,” written by Herman Melville in 1850, is about an employee named Bartelby, hired to copy legal documents who decides one day that he prefers not to copy any more documents. His boss, a risk-averse lawyer, is utterly defeated by Bartelby, whom he cannot convince to return to work but cannot bring himself to fire either. It is a great cautionary tale of poor management, and it has the virtue of showing that for all the ways in which Gen Y is different—and there are lots of such ways—the problem of good management is perennial and timeless.

The second great short story about the workplace is John Updike’s 1960s “A&P,” about a sack boy in a grocery store who quits one day because he cannot stand how his boss humiliated a young woman who’d appeared in the store in a bikini. Sammy’s decision to resign in anger on the spot is a foolish decision, because the young woman’s hauteur is a function of her money and upper class status, while Sammy is lower middle class at best. She doesn’t even notice that he has stuck up for her. He himself admits that quitting is a stupid idea. But we can speculate that it happens partly because his boss never paid any attention to him before and never helped affirm Sammy’s identity about who he was and what was the value of their common work. What a manager would think of this tale—whether the manager would blame Sammy or the boss more—would be revealing as we ponder the problems of managing human potential, whether in the grocery store or the big company.

The problems posed by the Gen Y chromosome are quite new–and very old.

Tom McBride, co-author of The Mindset List and The Mindset Lists of American History 




Patricia Curtis

January 9, 2014 at 10:30 am

Hard to see the mistake quoted below early in an article and keep reading it.

“For that matter, are their writing norms in the company?”

There, not their.


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