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Management Tips: Gen X vs. Gen Y


One of Chuck Underwood’s clients has hired Millenials as wait staff at a restaurant. They’re sometimes unnerved and driven to tears by the stress and chaos of the food industry-in contrast to their Gen X counterparts, who once held those jobs and met similar trials with marked composure.

Managers must discern the different working styles of Gens X and Y, and tailor how they work with each group, experts say, noting they’re talking in sweeping terms when describing the generations, and there are always exceptions at the individual level.

“Each generation comes to work each day with a certain list of unique strengths and shortcomings. The key is understanding which generation’s shortcomings can be overcome by another generation’s strengths,” said Underwood, founder and president of The Generational Imperative, an Ohio-based consulting group on generational issues in the workplace.

Making Leaders Out of Gen X – Training and Mentoring

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Dr. Tim Irwin, a corporate psychologist based in Atlanta, said as Xers take on more management positions, the biggest challenge is to develop them into effective leaders fairly quickly. Some are already flourishing as innovators and leaders, he said.

Because many Xers work well independently, Cam Marston, a Mobile, Ala.-based consultant specializing in multigenerational communications, suggests giving them projects and assignments to do on their own. They also tend to search for heroes they know personally, Marston said, which means they’ll be loyal to a supportive boss, not to a company.

“Gen X, with their carpe diem mentality, decided that enduring a poor manager isn’t worth the effort, and they will search to find the right person with whom to work. They have an intrinsic need to identify with this role model or hero, and they will actively change jobs until that person is found,” Marston explained in his recent book, “Motivating The ‘What’s In It For Me?’ Workforce.”

So managers looking to cultivate and retain Gen X should strive to be good mentors.

“Training and mentoring are two of the biggest things that Gen X and Y are looking for,” said Ruth Storrings, director of human resources at the AlphaStaff Group, an HR outsourcing firm.

Listen to Gen Y – and Manage Unrealistic Expectations

Along the lines of mentoring, managers should engage with Gen Y, Irwin suggested, talking with them regularly and understanding their career hopes and aspirations.

“One thing I tell Gen Xers moving into middle management and baby boomers is to help Yers find meaning in their work,” he said. “Make sure Gen Yers have a line of sight to the customer. It’s a way to help people find meaning in their work-if someone senses they’re serving another person, it makes the job more meaningful.”

Underwood said managers must be aware of Millenials’ sometimes unrealistic expectations.

“Because Millenials came of age so protected and nurtured by adults, my clients tell me Millenials are entering their work years with wildly unrealistic expectations about their entry-level jobs, and with an unrealistic sense of entitlement. They want in on the big decisions right away,” he said. “In all my generational workplace seminars, which usually are with management at companies, I advise my clients to give Millenials a strong orientation, to give them a realistic expectation about what’s ahead.”

Gen Yers also need help with time management, Marston said.

“They’ve been managed and organized throughout their entire lives, so they’re not very good at structuring their work day and prioritizing,” he said.

Ultimately, workers and managers should value each other’s differences, experts say.

“If you value something you manage it better. Conversely, I think Gen Yers need to appreciate what these older generations have accomplished. They’ve done some extraordinary things and Yers need to appreciate that,” Irwin said.

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