How to bridge the generation gap

New research this week which shows that the generational divide is well and truly alive and kicking in the workplace. According to a report from Ashridge Business School, there is an alarming mismatch between what managers and their younger ‘Gen Y’ employees expect of each other in the workplace.

The survey of almost 3000 managers and graduates showed that although managers admire the energy and intellect of young professionals, they feel they are poor team players who lack respect, want to run before they can walk and are overly focused on personal ‘fame’ and recognition.

Gen Y employees, on the other hand, are frustrated that they can’t progress their careers as quickly as they would like and struggle with the more formal communication style of their managers. They also have a completely different view of work-life balance, regarding their managers as stressed individuals, heading for burn-out, whose life-style they don’t aspire to.

Of course older and younger generations have always had difficulty understanding each other, but this work-related disconnect does have serious implications for businesses of all sizes. The Ashridge research found that it’s leading to a real issue with retention of young talented employees. The average length of stay in a job for members of Gen Y is only two years – with unmet expectations of work being cited as the top cause of leaving.

This constant job hopping costs companies dearly in terms of recruitment, but it is also giving rise to serious concerns about the judgement and decision-making capabilities of future leaders. People who never stay to see the end of a project don’t learn from their mistakes and are unable to build on their successes.

So what can you as a manager do to try and close the gap with your Gen Y employees so that you can work together in greater harmony?

Be clear about expectations

Establish the boundaries for behaviour and expectations as early as possible. Gen Y employees often need help with issues such as office etiquette, appropriate behaviour, respect, teamwork and internal politics. They often want promotion before they are ready and fail to understand why their performance is not considered up to scratch. Ideally, you should start to tackle these issues from day one, as part of the induction process – but don’t stop there. If you want to set people up for success you need to have a continuing dialogue with members of your team on a one-to-one basis so they are clear about what’s expected and what they need to do differently.

Develop missing skills early

The Ashridge research showed a real mismatch between the areas where Gen Y employees and their managers felt development was needed. Graduates often think they lack technical skills, while their managers feel they lack people skills. It’s important to tackle these soft skills gaps at an early stage so that young employees don’t get off on the wrong foot with their colleagues or become disenfranchised because they are not seen as capable of handling the challenging, interesting work they crave. Traditional approaches to training don’t always hit the mark with Gen Y. Young people have grown up with the internet and smart phones and expect to be able to access information anytime, anyplace, anywhere. They are often more receptive to digitally-supported training or internal social networking tools which allow them to pick up new information as and when they need it.

Provide two-way coaching and mentoring

Gen Y employees want and need coaching and mentoring to help them improve their people skills and develop a better understanding of ‘how things are done’ in the world of work.  Many actively want their own manager to provide this kind of support. Managers also have much to learn from the next generation of employees coming through. In particular, they could learn from Gen Y’s abilities to exploit social media and build strong external peer networks. Why not consider setting up two way mentoring programmes, which help both managers and younger employees build skills and competencies? These kind of initiatives  can do much to build relationships and improve understanding between the generations and are relatively easy and inexpensive to set up.

Provide regular praise

Gen Y are the X Factor/Facebook generation and have grown up expecting ‘fame’ or at the very least public recognition for their achievements. This may not sit easily with their managers, who are more used to keeping their heads down and getting the job done. If graduates are to remain engaged, however, it is important to provide regular praise, not just for the big achievements but also for the small steps along the way. Remember that Gen Y are used to sharing news of their activities and achievements in the digital world. The praise they crave doesn’t necessarily need to come directly from you as a manager. Having something they have achieved ‘liked’ or commented on by colleagues on line can be just as powerful. It’s a great opportunity to make use of the latest generation of HR portals or social platforms to provide a forum to share good news and encourage collaboration.

Hold up a mirror

Look closely at your own perceptions and preferred ways of working to make sure you are not hanging on to outdated views or practices or doing things in a certain way because it’s how ‘things always get done around here’. It’s not just about getting Gen Y employees to fit in better – it’s about both generations finding ways to adapt to the changing world of work. Taking a step back can often help you realise that there is another, perhaps better way of doing things, and that young Gen Y employees can help you bring new ideas and approaches to fruition.

Information courtesy of Ashridge Business School. You can download a copy of the summary report ‘Culture Shock: Generation Y and their managers around the world’.

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