Gen Y and Boundaries (or lack thereof) – Part 3

September 8, 2008

Last week I addressed how Gen Y’s have very broad boundaries around information sharing.  This week marks the final “Gen Y and Boundaries” installment.

This week’s boundary focus: Relationships

For the most part, Gen Y’s have great relationships with their parents.  Parents of this generation have included their children in many family decisions since their children were old enough to point.  Teenage and young adult children communicate with their parents frequently and openly.  And, while due to many factors, moving back home after college no longer has a stigma associated with it.  From a roles and relationships standpoint, the boundaries where parents “say” and children “do” is not the way many current households are run.  While this generation respects their parents enormously, for good and for bad, these parents and their children relate more as peers (much of the time) than a more traditional parent/child relationship.

This is the generation that popularized the “friends with benefits ” phrase.  I’m not implying that this type of relationship boundary jumping is new to this generation.  But the fact that an acronym (FWB) is now associated with the phrase, certainly indicates increased frequency and acceptance of this type of arrangement.  For many reasons, this makes me cringe, but I need to remember that I’m viewing it through, now failing, Baby Boomer eyes.  I must look back and recognize the boundaries that my generation pushed in this area. 

With delayed adulthood so ever present among Gen Y’s (more on that in a future blog) their first real manager may be subconsciously viewed as a transitional parent and, in part, a peer.  Gen Y’s  may assume that their manager’s primary concern be their growth and development as an end to itself, rather than a means to having a talented staff to accomplish necessary tasks.  Gen Y’s will expect to be asked for their opinions on a broad range of issues.  And their communication with their managers may be more informal than what is acceptable in the company’s culture.

Gen Y’s respect executives, but they are not intimidated by them.   When I began my career, it would have been unheard of to contact the president of your company, and you certainly wouldn’t do it without your manager’s permission.  Gen Y’s don’t think twice about it.  Some managers have found that bringing their new-to-market employees to executive meetings can yield unpredictable results.  Gen Y’s are generally comfortable speaking up and can offer creative, bold, new (though sometimes naive and unrealistic) ideas.  In many ways, this level of confidence is wonderful and refreshing, but it can go against the culture of many organizations.  Expect that these employees will be respectful of senior management, just don’t automatically expect that their demonstration of respect will conform to your demonstration of respect definition.

So, what’s a manager to do?

Managers must first recognize that when they hire a Gen Y employee, instincts around these boundaries will be different than the instincts of some of their older employees.  As I discussed in the information sharing blog, there will be conversations you’ll need to have that you may not expect.  Those conversations are important not only for your Gen Y’s ability to be successful, but also to growing your skills to effectively manage a range of employee types.  Don’t avoid them.  Get good at them. 

If you have a corporate policy around office relationships, don’t expect that your Gen Y employees will find it in the corporate manual.  You may need to include it in one of those, “by the way” discussions.  If there is a policy, don’t expect this generation to abide by it.  Far less boundary jumping generations in the past have ignored it.  Policy or not, office relationship that go beyond a traditional friendship will impact the dynamics.  There are conversations you’ll need to have.  Have them and have them wisely.

Don’t be offended, if the tone, language and communications style your Gen Y employees use with you closely resembles the way they communicate with their friends.  Pick your battles.  Some things may just jolt you into saying “that was strange.”  But others may really go against your grain or the grain of the corporate culture.  Decide which approaches need to shift and provide constructive and good humored coaching around those.  Present your coaching as helping them fit into the culture, not your lack of confidence in their ability to make good choices.  If they have something they want to say or suggest to a corporate executive, encourage them to do that first interaction with your coaching in the background.  Unless you strongly disagree, don’t alter, but help strengthen the message your Gen Y employee wants to communicate.  Be sure they know that you want to be involved at first to help them and their message to be impressive.  For many executives, unsolicited input from new-to-market employees is refreshing (as long as it’s done in a respectful way.)  Coaching them to do this well will make them look good and make you look good.

Help your Gen Y employees make the shift from approaching you as a transitional parent to approaching you as a manager – they need to understand this difference to grow and be successful in the professional world.  One difference may be in the way projects are assigned.  This generations was not raised to purely “do as I say.”  More conversational than dictatorial work requests will go a long way.  Another difference is likely to be around how their personal growth ranks with getting the job done.  A parent may view a task as a means to generate personal growth.   A manager primarily views personal growth as a means to get the job done.  To a parent, it’s “learn it, it’s important for you.”  To a manager it’s, “I hired you to do a job.”  That said, there may be times when it’s advisable to provide personal growth opportunities to your employees for their own sake, even if it’s not a skill you need them to have today.  Helping your employees grow is one way to demonstrate that you care about them as people, not just employees, and that’s a big hot button for Gen Y.  It will encourage retention and job satisfaction and that’s a big hot button for you. 


As for Gen Y’s, remember that every interaction creates an impression.  You will need to think consciously about things you may not have had to think consciously about before.  Examples include the level of familiarity that is acceptable when dealing with your managers and senior managers, what is and is not an appropriate relationship with co-workers, and the right tone and medium to use for communication.  Text messaging during a conversation with a friend may be completely acceptable, but text messaging during a meeting with someone in business is viewed as not giving them your full attention.  It can be insulting.  Remember that your manager is your manager, not your parent, not your peer, and not your friend.  Your manager hired you first and foremost to do a job.  Your personal and professional growth is critical to that end, and the best managers will view that broadly and through a long term lens. But your professional growth is primarily helping you to be more valuable to the organization, not first as an end to itself.  Don’t lose or sifle your creativity, just be sure your actions fit the culture of the environment, so that you can be successful.

To wrap up the Gen Y and Boundaries discussion, it’s important to recognize that pushing beyond the established, accepted boundaries is always the role of the new generation.  It’s part of growing up.  The experiences, influences and tools presented to a new generation will impact which boundaries they, as a group, push.  But, the bottom line is that this is nothing new.

What is new about this generation is how much they expect prior generations to accept their boundary definitions, rather than trying to fit into the tighter boundaries previously defined (first and boundary push later.)  They are a defiant and confident group.  They are not opposed to making waves, but remember that they also want to be successful.  Some of the boundaries they are trying to expand may make a business stronger.  Both sides need to be flexible and patient and willing to learn from each other in order for work to . . . work.


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