Dealing With Gen X

Oct. 21, 2003

How to inspire their loyalty and take advantage of their strengths

Many managers run into problems managing young employees because they are working with misconceptions. We need to understand their needs and their expectations so we can have a better idea of how to motivate them.

Let's get rid of the notion that these young engineers are naïve and have a short attention span. We may think of them as impatient, cynical, disloyal, lazy, and arrogant, but this cannot be further from the truth. Work and career are essential to their self-definition and personal security.

When they are seeking employment, there are many factors young engineers consider. One of the most important questions they ask themselves is whether this is a place where they can make a meaningful, lasting, valued contribution.

They also want to be in a work environment that offers easy access to resources for learning and professional growth. They want autonomy and ownership of their work. They look for opportunities for individual-based job security.

"So what?" you ask. "Doesn't everybody?" Well, the difference is the way they think and how they go about getting these things. Todays young employees are operating with precocious shrewdness. They don't believe in long-term job security or paying your dues as we once did.

But they want to make meaningful contributions to a company that values their work. Once they feel their work is valued, they want to increase their own value to the company. They will work hard and go beyond expectations if they believe top managers see what they are doing, value their work, and are investing in their careers.

Their sense of belonging increases when their specific contributions are recognized. They want their work in the spotlight. They need managers to regularly confirm that their hard work is paying off. When they get public recognition, they will have more opportunities for career building, and that will give them a greater sense of individual security.

Young engineers are children from the information revolution. They can simultaneously assimilate large quantities of information from multiple sources, sort it, and evaluate it. This ability to process information quickly may get misinterpreted as a short attention span or lack of patience. They ask a lot of questions, understand the answers, and move on. They demand a lot of information and look to managers as teachers. Provide as many resources as possible and let them seek the information on an as-needed basis.

Give them autonomy, don't micromanage them. The young engineer is not arrogant, but independent. They function best when they are managed as responsible and independent creative assets. The work environment has to foster a sense of freedom to take risks, make mistakes, and try out their own solutions. Give them daily decision-making power. They will seek managers out for information when it is unavailable from any other source.

Involve them in goal-setting. This will help build a sense of ownership,the goals will be theirs, not the managers, which will deepen their commitment. Define what you want but be flexible about how they get there. Spell out the end result of each phase of a project to ensure the employee knows what is his responsibility, then let him determine his own time and schedule.

Give them room to express individualism in their work. The creative freedom you provide will give them more opportunity for security and self-definition and will produce innovative results for the company.

In his book, Managing Generation X, Bruce Tulgan shares some specific tips to bring out the best in young employees:

* Provide short-term rewards to make young employees confident their contributions are valued and give them a sense of job security.

* Seek their input and use their suggestions to show them they are valued. Include them in shaping team goals. Give them a concrete role in implementing those goals to increase ownership.

* Invest in their careers. Actively share expertise that's not available from any other sources and improves their knowledge and skill bases. Provide learning opportunities and public recognition.

* Provide regular indications of their progress. Create a work environment that celebrates success.

* Young employees want to be managed by someone who has actually performed the same or similar tasks. They are perceived to have the most direct knowledge and empathy.

* Ask how things are going and listen. Use what they tell you to become better managers.

* Focus on results, not the process.

Young employees adapt easily to change. They perceive new and different environments as opportunities for new connections. They see problems as new opportunities to succeed, where older employee may look at the very same thing and see confusion. Pay attention to your young employees, and you will reap the benefits.

Bettyann Lichtenstein is a licensed clinical therapist. E-mail her at [email protected].

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