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The Challenges of Managing and Training a Generation That Knows What It Wants
by Bill Rosenthal


Talking with a 20-something employee, two different managers can get completely different messages. 

Let’s say a young job applicant’s first question at the interview is “When will I get my first promotion?”  Another expects lots of praise for taking the first step on a project and ongoing encouragement to complete it.  And a third is altogether inexperienced but is certain it can be done better another way and is vocal about it.  This is what should be expected of young employees – the Gen Y or Millennial generation, usually defined as those born after 1980.

One manager might see these behaviors as part of the new generation’s sense of entitlement.  What else can you expect, the manager asks, when these kids grew up with helicopter parents who asked teachers to change a grade or argued with a coach for more playing time?  Whose parents tried to protect them against all harm with “Baby on Board” stickers on the car and helmets for riding their tricycles?

But another manager, better cued on how to manage the new workforce, sees all this behavior as good news.  This manager understands that these employees’ parents urged them to become individuals, to seek fulfillment, to express whatever they're feeling, and to change things rather than accept the status quo. It’s natural for them to behave the way they do.  And it’s all for the good because employees who are comfortable with change and confident about their abilities can create and support the innovations businesses need.  Properly motivated, younger employees can turbo-charge an improvement effort.

They’re willing to work as hard as their elders do if their particular needs are met.  That includes having a very clear picture of what steps are needed to complete a project, how they’ll be evaluated and what the future holds for them.  It also includes getting lots of support on the job and recognition for their contributions.  Growing up with the new media all around them, they became used to getting news and information in real time.  It shouldn’t be surprising that at work they'll be demanding about getting information and impatient for answers to their questions.

All that is good news, too:  A workforce that wants lots of support for carrying out the job will eagerly embrace skills training.

Training Isn’t Easy

There are challenges, though, in training younger employees.  They don't learn the way older adults do.  And there’s an acute need for improving their communications skills.  Their focus on self-fulfillment often gives others the impression that they don’t care about anyone else.  Their rapid-fire communications style, which is natural for the children of the information age, can come across as impatience, attention deficit disorder, or even rudeness to those who are older.  The way they often communicate with one another, whether it's in person or via media, doesn't work at all in the business world.

Without good communication at every level in the organization, ideas founder, plans don't get executed and everything seizes up.  Young people’s poor language skills and the casual look of their e-mails can make customers think they're unprofessional or don't care. Poor communication slows down transactions, can cause cost overruns and, at worst, brings on legal problems. 

There’s a particular need for training young people to meet the critical communications challenges they'll encounter at every level: They have to convey information clearly and concisely. To resolve conflicting needs constructively. To organize and present evidence that supports their solution to a problem. To deliver a presentation that inspires a group and leads them to action. The upside is good communications skills are easily taught. The challenge is to meet the younger employees' particular training needs.

Once they’re in the workforce they no longer want to learn the way they did in school. Back then, they were told what's important to know. Now they want to decide for themselves what's important.  They aren't interested in knowledge for its own sake or in broadening their understanding of one topic or another. Rather, they want to learn the tricks and tactics that will help them reach their goals. 

Let’s Be Practical

Young salespeople, for example, don’t want to be taught all about buyer psychology.  They want to know instead how to generate leads, get appointments, scope out the buyer's needs and craft a successful solution.  Young people don't want to learn by memorizing facts and figures. They prefer to learn by being active and by solving problems.
Many of them grew up in gaming and thrive on the challenges games present.  They’ve become experiential learners who prefer learning by doing and they easily switch over to creating and teaching others.  They can take in associative, nonlinear learning better than older employees do and are better at multitasking. What other generation would have created music with rappers sampling songs?

Though young people read newspapers and books less than their predecessors did, they’ll devour how-to information that helps them do their jobs.  They’ve spent lots of time on interactive websites so they want training that uses graphically rich content, combining text with photographs, videos, streaming and sound. 

Blended Learning Preferred

It's commonly believed that young people prefer to learn online. The truth is that they prefer blended learning.  Desiring human interaction and collegiality they want an instructor who’s engaging, involves them in the learning, inspires them, and gives them personal attention when they're stumped.  In fact, some of them don't like online training at all because the responses are too slow. 

Young people also prefer group learning.  They've been taught to value teamwork since they were in day care.  Today they strongly prefer to work in teams, often with tight peer bonds. It's common for first job seekers to ask in their interviews if they'll be part of a team or will be working solo. A recent study concluded that two thirds of them want to work in teams of up to three people, with the remainder’s preference split equally between being in teams of five or more and working alone.

Like other adult learners, young people expect the instruction to take into account what they already know.  They'll quickly reject training that doesn't credit them for their existing knowledge or any other signal suggesting they don’t have the instructor's full respect.  The teaching should be set at a level high enough to challenge the learners but not so high that they'll become frustrated.  Young people are more critical than others about training that may be too simplistic or over their heads. 

The younger they are the stronger their expectations are about many different aspects in the workplace.  They differ markedly from their elders, or Generation X, those born roughly between 1960 and 1980.  There are as many differences between Gen-Yers and Gen-Xers as there are between the latter group and the baby boomers. 

Expect Tough Questions

Young people have been raised to feel free voicing their opinion so they believe it's perfectly fine to question the instructor's source of information. Many of them were given extra help when they were in school; now they expect it during training if they need it.  On childhood sports teams they were given trophies just for showing up, so they expect applause and high-fives with every sign of progress in the classroom. These are not signs of being self-centered or immature.  They’re the everyday behavior of young people today.

Hiring managers often react negatively to resumes that describe the candidate's favorite music, types of yoga or pig-out foodstuffs.  But young people see work as an extension of their personal life, not something separate from it.  A manager doesn't have to join the employee band but it's not a good idea to cut off the conversation when it turns to music.

Managers usually don't want employees checking in on Facebook when they're on the job.  Yes, it's a time waster -- but it’s as natural for younger employees to do this as it is for their managers to keep checking their voicemail.  Savvy managers often like Facebook: An employee looking for information can check his network and get the data in a few days -- or get it within minutes with Facebook.  Younger employees, now fully wired, can provide instant answers for the toughest questions. 

It's not only their gadgets that set them apart, though. It's the way they’ve fused their lives with the technology. Three quarters of Gen-Yers have created a profile on a social networking site.  This compares with half of Gen-Xers.  Only 30 percent of the baby boomers have.

What matters is to understand that the youngest employees in the workforce as a group are markedly different from the oldest ones.  They may be more difficult to manage and more challenging to train.  Properly managed and trained, though, their energy and enthusiasm can improve a company's productivity by enormous margins.

Putting It All Together

Here are some practical tips and techniques for communicating with, managing and training younger employees:

  • Don’t make any assumptions that an employee will reflect the personality and attitudes of his or her generation.  You don’t represent yours, after all.

  • Get up to speed on technology, and not only for business uses.

  • Ask their opinion about product development plans or efforts to crack new markets.  They’ll bring a different perspective, particularly about selling to younger consumers.

  • Be there when you’re wanted.  Young employees want feedback, encouragement and nurturing.

  • Don’t bristle at questions about your authority or information.  Young people didn’t grow up showing much obeisance to their elders.

  • Don’t get frustrated with their impatience.  Channel it into productive work.

  • Chill!

Making mistakes and learning from them is considered normal and “part of the process” by Gen-Yers so don’t be afraid to admit your own mistakes, discomfort, and/or confusion when you’re managing them.  You’ll often find they’ll meet your openness to learning with enthusiasm and eagerness to help make your working relationships better.

And it won’t be about “them starting to act like us” or “us trying to act like them” but, rather, a collaborative effort to find the best that each generation has to offer in making the workplace better and more productive.


The Author

Bill Rosenthal

Bill Rosenthal is chief executive of Communispond Inc., which has taught more than 600,000 people to communicate more effectively since its founding 41 years ago. He also is the creator of LearnTO, an online learning management system.  Go to for free access to articles, videotapes, audiotapes and webinars as well as subscriptions to enewsletters, all dealing with various aspects of communications and sales.  Contact the author at

Many more articles in Training & Development in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2010 by Bill Rosenthal. All rights reserved.

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