5 Workplace Lessons for Gen-Ys

Since working on Tribe, I’ve found myself reading more human resources blogs than ever. A common theme among them is “understanding Gen-Y employees”. I find it ironic that although so much effort is being spent discussing how to communicate with members of Gen-Y, very little attention is being paid to using these channels to discuss the flipside of the issue: helping Gen-Ys work with other generations.

So, to put my keyboard where my mouth is, here are my 5 Workplace Lessons for Gen-Ys.

Disclaimer: Please don’t take these tips as canon; I’m simply speaking from having watched friends and peers struggle from both sides of this challenge.

1. Much of the workforce doesn’t share your values: This point may seem obvious, but it is an important reality to internalize. You may be clear on what you want (e.g. clearly defined job descriptions and responsibilities, regular feedback and reviews, skills development opportunities, friendly work environment, etc). However, what’s often missed is that the above benefits truly hold no value for some of your coworkers. Some people don’t want reviews, don’t want to take classes and don’t care if they have a well written job description. Some people want a job that is task-based, are happy with their current responsibilities, and pursue their personal development outside of the workplace.

It’s important to understand and believe this, because it is much harder to communicate with someone if you incorrectly assume they share your values. If you can acknowledge that many of their values are different from yours from the start, your interactions will go a lot more smoothly.

Ditto if you can accept that neither set of values is “better” – they are just “different”. Don’t condemn your co-workers because they don’t want reviews or don’t want responsibilities. When you do pass a negative judgement (even internally) people can tell and it makes you look close-minded.

2. Don’t underestimate experience: I’ve seen many Gen-Ys hired for specific current expertise (e.g. programmers, community managers, business grads, etc.). Because of their special skills, they are placed in the position of a “specialist” within their organization. The danger of being given the role of expert, is that it becomes easy to discount the input and feedback of others.

Let’s face it, knowing how to post something to Twitter or write a blog are skills with a limited shelf life. The world is changing too quickly and skills become out of date almost instantly. In this climate of change, what’s far more useful (and exceptionally hard to train) is the ability to work with analogies and transfer learnings: the ability to take past experiences and figure out how to successfully apply them to a new situation. Thinking in terms of analogies is inherent, although it comes easier to some people than others. Honing this ability makes you an adaptable, agile and innovative thinker (a.k.a. a more valuable employee).

The underlying point of this is that people with more experiences have more analogies to apply to a new situation. Rather than immediately discounting the feedback of your more experienced peers (which also makes you look close-minded), try considering that they may have past experiences that are providing unique insights to current situations.

3. Get on LinkedIn. Most managers acknowledge that Facebook, Twitter, etc. are great tools. Beyond these (largely social) tools, most professionals understand the value of LinkedIn. A lot of employers, in their efforts to work with Gen-Y, are adopting more web-based tools, and LinkedIn is one of the tools they use the most. If you want your employer to work with you in the ways you find comfortable, you should extend them the same courtesy. Build your LinkedIn profile and network. You’ll be happy you did when you look for your next job.

4. Bone up on “Change Management”. A lot of the Gen-Ys I know have strong ideas on elements they would like to change in their workplace. Some of them keep these thoughts to themselves, while others rail against the short-sightedness of management. I see very few taking a planned approach to changing their workplace.

It’s unproductive to simply complain about how an organization needs to change. Rather than trying to change your organization by sheer force of will, you may find more success if you take a structured (and more gradual) approach to the change. Many concepts from structured change management processes can be applied to changes you want to make in your workplace, and many managers are comfortable with the concept of a managed change approach.

Yes, this will likely slow down the change process, but it will make the change more palatable to your co-workers and managers (and more likely to happen!).

5. Worry less about doing things the “right” way. In projects that engage multiple generations, a pattern I see repeated is that older team members often rely on what was done before, while younger team members advocate doing what’s “right”. When we examine what was done before, the reason usually comes back to a gut reaction or an unspoken process. Past experiences get rolled into a hard-to-rationalize recommended course of action. On the flip-side, when we examine the word “right”, it often translates into something like “the most secure”, “the cleanest process”, or “best governance”. If you’re a Gen-Y employee in this situation, try considering what’s “optimal” for the situation instead of what’s “right”. “Right” often implies an extreme somewhere on a scale, whereas “optimally” implies a maximum benefit, while balancing all factors.

For example, in some situations you need to optimize for ease-of-implementation, sometimes you need to optimize for speed-to-market, and other times optimizing means reducing the effort required to create change. This may mean you need to forgo some features today, or take a less direct route, to obtain the best outcome in the long run. Your more experienced co-workers can often recognize what you’re optimizing for (even if it’s subconsciously) through their past experiences – if you can temporarily let go of “right” and instead work with the team to determine what’s “optimal” you may find it easier to get to a solution that’s supported by all sides.

If you have any suggestions for lessons that I should add to this list, please drop me a line (or add a comment to this post), I’d be happy to flesh this out further.

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