How to … coach Generation Y

April 30, 2013 | By

By BARBARA ST.CLAIRE-OSTWALD, Original article published in Coaching at Work.

Like any other generational group, Generation Y is uniquely shaped by its historical context. It is only by understanding, respecting and addressing such generational differences in the working environment, that coaches can establish a successful relationship

There is no consensus on the exact birthdate of Generation Y (Gen Y), but various publications and research studies give it as between 1982 and 2002 (Baby Boomers: 1946-1963, Gen X: 1963-1977 and late Gen X: 1977-1982). Each generational group has a distinct set of values: how they view authority, their orientation to the world, loyalty, expectations of their leadership and ideal work environment. Each is uniquely shaped by its historical context. These formative influences have enduring effects and bring something new to the workforce, underscoring our need to understand, respect and regularly address generational differences in working practices.

Generation Y at work

A major challenge is an apparent mismatch between what employers want – and the world can offer – and what Gen Y want to do. Many Gen Y’ers have grown up in small families, with parents having more time for them, and less sibling rivalry, which has helped boost their self-confidence. The 1980s were ‘the decade of the child’, so many ‘Y’ers’ grew up feeling special and cherished. They have been pampered, nurtured and programmed with a plethora of activities since they were toddlers – they are both high performance and high maintenance, and believe in their own worth. But perhaps the key identifiers of Gen Y are that they are highly educated, well travelled, often speak more than one language, have strong cultural awareness and are very interconnected. They are not, however, willing to conform blindly to traditional standards or time-honoured institutions. They do not respond to formality – particularly office hierarchies and traditions. Many businesses have found that Gen Y’ers are quite prepared to walk away from organisations that are unable or unwilling to match their values and concerns. They are inclined to question everything and are impatient to get the best they can as quickly as possible. They are also intuitive and can detect insincerity or ulterior motives. Unlike Gen X, which was enticed by freedom and independence, Gen Y is said to be more individualistic and focused on their own interests. While Gen X typically “get on with the job – head down”; Gen Y will question how and why things are done.

Receptive to coaching

Work/life balance is of real interest to today’s youngest workers – our future global executives. They are more interested in making their jobs accommodate their family and personal lives. Gen Y wants training and development, good mentors and coaching and career progression. They care less about salaries, although money is very much a motivator, thanks to a combination of heavy student debt, rising cost of living and the struggle to get on to the UK property ladder. Gen Y’ers are also very ‘savvy’ about their target employer groups – they have seen Enron, Arthur Andersen and Lehman Brothers implode, and are sceptical about concepts such as employee loyalty. Employers may need to look at whether their benefit packages are fit for purpose for Gen Y’ers.

Low self-awareness

Gen Y’ers have high expectations of self, but not much self-awareness. They aim to work faster and better than others; they want fair and direct managers who foster their professional development; they seek out creative challenges and view colleagues as vast resources of knowledge, and not as adversaries; they want immediate responsibility, to make a significant impact on Day 1, and they are goal-orientated: they want small goals with tight deadlines so they can build up ownership of tasks. Internationally, a large gap is developing between Gen Y’ers and Gen X. In Poland, India and China, for example, this new generation much prefer to work for international global companies than local ones. They are happier to work in flat matrix structures, where there is more of an open door policy, equality and less hierarchy. But although Gen Y appear to have greater maturity (ie, ‘street wise’, globally aware), they also have less maturity (ie, they are ‘me-focused’) and, on many levels, have poor emotional intelligence.

Fatal flaw: Being overly directive

Gen Y’ers have a reputation for being difficult to hire and manage. They can be time-consuming, demanding and want to be both pushed and coddled. If sponsors want to use coaching to get Gen Y to do things ‘their way’ or if the coaching is overly directive, it is likely to be ineffective.

Make it work

Gen Y’ers respond well to coaching, because they speak their mind and make decisions about their future. They thrive in a coaching environment, often modelling and adopting ‘your’ coaching behaviour and sharing it with others. Combining coaching with mentoring by higher-level employees encourages Gen Y’ers to take on more challenging work. Strengths-based coaching is particularly effective as Gen Y’ers thrive on ‘praise’ and positive reinforcement, so models such as Solutions Focused and Appreciative Enquiry, which explore what they are doing well, but also gently explore what is not working well, are particularly effective.

Fatal flaw: Being inflexible and ‘old-fashioned’

Coaches may need to review their models and adapt them, or look at how others are coaching this generation.

Make it work

Make sure you’re up-to-date with technology by using a variety of formats as coaching platforms.Combining online coaching with face to face, for example, can work well. Recognise there may be areas where you may have to help Gen Y’ers catch up to certain standards. Be open to new ideas from this generation. Re-examine your business processes, particularly with communication – it’s crucial for successful coaching relationships.

Barbara St.Claire-Ostwald is a freelance consultant, coach and trainer, providing cross-cultural business consultancy services.

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