Why Gen Y Expects to Lead Changes

February 2, 2009

When it comes to technology, Gen Y’s lead and parents follow.  How will that translate to the workplace?

Gen Y’s enter organizations with high expectations.  They expect a lot of themselves in terms of excellent performance and ability to positively impact their organization.  They also expect a lot from their organizations in terms of opportunity, support, and efficient and effective processes. 

When I first joined the workforce many years ago, I noticed procedures that could be changed for the better.  But I was reluctant to speak up and had little expectation that I’d be listened to or taken seriously so soon after I’d started with the organization. 

Not Gen Y’s!!  They’re not shy about speaking up when they see something they think can be improved upon.  That may not be such a big change.  I’m sure lots of new hires are far more outspoken than I was so many years ago.  The most noteworthy thing is their belief that there’s no taboo in commenting up the leadership chain and their expectation that they will be listened to.

Part of this is their upbringing.  They have weighed in on family decisions since they could point, and have been encouraged by self-esteem-building-intent parents that they should be heard.  They have been coached to think their thoughts, speak up confidently, and not be intimidated. 

That’s the more obvious reason. And, by the way, it’s not a bad thing to enter a situation wanting to see / improve upon the broader picture matched with the confidence to speak-up. (OK, with some coaching on how to do this respectfully.)   But I recently stumbled upon another reason.

In most cases, parents teach children.  It starts with how to eat with utensils and, before you know it, moves to how to fill out college applcations.  Children have always tried to teach parents, but it doesn’t always take.  (Think of your own examples and take a moment to smile.)

Gen Y gets technology.  This is not just a tool for them, it’s in their blood.  When a new tool is released, they don’t have to learn it, they automatically seem to understand it and how it can be used.  I am in awe of this.

I was having lunch with some college friends.  Both women have children who started college this year (ah, life’s circles.)  Of the three of us, I’m the most technically inclined.  But they were using IM almost exclusively while I use it occasionally.  And in their messages to me, they used some acronyms that I didn’t understand.

It’s not uncommon for a trend to start with “the young.”  They tend to be the early adopters.  But, how often do their adoptions completely change mainstream communication?   With technology, Gen Ys have started using tools that have helped them to communicate more readily.  In some cases more fully (Facebook) in other cases less (Twitter, IM) but more readily for sure.

“Hey, Mom.  If you want to reach me, IM me.  Learn the acronyms because that’s what I’ll be using.  If you want to understand me, use my new language.”  Parents have adopted these tools to communicate with their kids and have found them to be useful beyond those interactions.  Then they move on from IM and set up their own Facebook account.  Children watch this happen and what’s their conclusion.  “When it comes to technology and ways to communicate, I, not my parents, take the lead.  When it comes to doing things more efficiently, I teach my parents.”  Sometimes this is likely to be more of a subconscious than a conscious a-ha.

So, they enter the workplace where the tools and modes of communication are “old” and expect the same thing to happen.  They assume it’s their role to lead the way in the implementation of new tools and how these tools create new, more efficient processes.

That’s why they’re not only comfortable speaking up, but also expect to be listened to.  They expect that in the workplace as in the home, they will take the lead in these ways.  Even if it takes a while, they expect the established staff to start to see it their way.  Just like it happened at home.  Sometimes they need to do a lot of training, just like at home.  Sometimes they meet resistance, just like at home.  But eventually, they assume, the established staff will come on board to their way of thinking and working.

So, for managers, don’t be alarmed or insulted when you see Gen Y’s coming in stunned by how things are done and expecting that the changes they propose should be made.  Use this as an opportunity to train them in how to do a proposal and a presentation.  Teach them how to be persuasive in your culture.  Give them the challenge to “make a case.”   You just might be surprised how when you give them room to run, they can be more impressive than you’d ever imagined.

Gen Y’s you need to recognize that the workplace is not your home and your manager, although rooting for you and supporting your success, is not your parent.  A workplace is bigger than a family and changes are more complex to implement.   Realize that, especially when new to a company or job, you don’t see all the layers and there may be nuances you don’t yet understand about the workplace and its culture.  Have your ideas and share your ideas, but do it in a balanced, thoughtful and respectful way.  Referring to your workplace or its procedures as “ancient” (with that derogatory) tone will not help your manager sell your ideas and will not help your ideas to be well received.  You may be stunned by how backwards things are, but instead of outburst like “You guys are crazy.  How can you work like this?  Here’s what you have to do,” try “I have an idea” and then back it up with how it can work and how you can contribute to the improvement.  When you don’t put people on the defensive, you’ll be amazed how receptive they can be.

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Onboarding Gen Y prepares new-to-market Gen Y employees to successfully enter the workplace and helps guide organizations to effectively hire, welcome, retain and enable these employees to exceed expectations.
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