Coaching Gen Y Employees: What to Do When They Think They’re Ready to Advance … and You Don’t

Dec 14, 2011

Do you have Gen Y, or Millennial, employees who, in your opinion, think they are more proficient than they are or think they should advance faster than you believe is realistic?

If so, join the club. This is one of the biggest frustrations I hear from managers.

While it may be frustrating, how you handle this will make a huge difference in whether your Gen Y employees:

  1. Listen to, and respect, your feedback now and in the future.
  2. Stay.
  3. Remain engaged if they stay.
  4. Refer their friends to become job candidates at your company.

Just recently, I was coaching a senior executive who was feeling frustrated with one of his young managers, whom I’ll call Jenna. Jenna, a millennial, firmly believed she had mastered her present position and was ready to move on.

The senior executive, whom I’ll call Bill, believed that anyone in that position needed several years in the position to experience the myriad of situations required to develop a deep understanding of the department she was in, and the wisdom to make sound decisions.

Bill also believed that Jenna overrated her knowledge and ability. Jenna was a classic case of someone who “didn’t know what they didn’t know” — a common challenge for novices, especially young novices with the confidence, and sometimes brashness, that comes with youth.

I’d like to share the key points we covered in our session with the hope that you’ll find it useful for your interactions with Gen Y employees who believe they are ready to progress faster than you believe they are.

You’ll find that everything covered in the following points will help you with any employee, but doing these things—and being skilled at them—is especially important when dealing with your millennial employees.

“It takes time” and “be patient” will douse the flame of enthusiasm and ambition, and leave you with a disheartened, disengaged employee. 

You will end up with an employee who believes:

  1. You don’t understand their ability.
  2. You don’t value their enthusiasm and ambition.
  3. Your organization doesn’t provide opportunities for advancement.
  4. Growing professionally will require looking for a new job.

You need to first shift your millennial employee from Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Incompetence. 

Jenna doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, i.e. she has Unconscious Incompetence. To believe her boss’s assessment that she needs more time, and to become receptive to learning, she first needs to realize she needs to learn.

She needs to become aware of what she doesn’t know and what necessary skills she doesn’t possess. In other words, Bill needs to help Jenna develop Conscious Incompetence.

Helping someone shift to Conscious Incompetence creates cognitive dissonance in the person being coached. Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling created when our current viewpoint can’t hold up under the weight of new information (“Oh … I’m not as ready as I thought …”).

Helping the Gen Y employee develop Conscious Incompetence also stimulates motivation. They now see a gap between where they thought their current ability could take them and their new understanding that it won’t take them to where they want to go.

With this understanding, they’re more open to hearing what they need to do next. This sense of “I don’t know X and I need to know X to get to where I want to go” provides the fuel to power self-directed learning. Therefore, as a manager and coach, you need to make a list of the specific skills and knowledge that your Gen Y employee doesn’t yet know, but needs to, for them to progress.

Give Specific, Crystal-clear Examples

Don’t be vague when describing the areas you believe they need to develop. “I want to see you develop better conflict management skills” might be fine as a start, but it must be followed up with specific situations you’ve witnessed where the Gen Y employee fell short. Then give specific descriptions of what you would like to see them do differently in that situation.

As I teach in my constructive feedback seminars: When we give vague, nonspecific feedback, the receiver feels helpless because they don’t have the information they need to remedy the problem. When people feel helpless, it triggers primitive hard-wired responses to helpless — from anxiety all the way up to fear. At a primitive, hard-wired level, fear is linked closely with aggression (that’s why you don’t back an animal into a corner). Thus, when people feel helpless, they often become aggressive. By being crystal-clear with your feedback, you help the listener feel a sense of control: “Ah … I know what he wants, what he doesn’t want, and what I can do to fix it.”

So, make sure you’re crystal clear.

State Explicitly How Much You Value the Employee’s Enthusiasm and Ambition

Don’t forget what a gift enthusiasm and ambition is. Since only about 1 out of 4 employees reports being highly engaged, according to Gallup’s landmark study on engagement, you want to make sure your engaged employees stay engaged. You want to make sure they know that you notice and appreciate their enthusiasm and ambition.

The executive I was coaching said: “I don’t want to dampen Jenna’s enthusiasm or have her leave.”

My response:

“Make sure you tell her that. Make sure you let Jenna know that you notice and appreciate her enthusiasm and ambition, and you really want her to stay and grow with the company.”

By being this explicit both about valuing Jenna’s interest and about his desire not to dampen her enthusiasm, Bill communicates that he values and respects Jenna at both a professional and a personal level.

Addressing both aspects of the relationship openly communicates to the Gen Y employee that you care about them as an individual. While wanting your boss to care about you as an individual is not generation-specific, it’s especially important to the Gen Y generation.

Having been raised in a very child-centric time in history where many parents played coach and mentor — along with taxi driver — Gen Y employees are as a group more likely to become demoralized by an emotionally disengaged boss.

This point cannot be overemphasized.

The last thing you want is for your coaching meeting with your Gen Y employee to come across as cold and “all-business.”

Attending to the human and relationship aspect of the conversation, doesn’t just increase your ability to get commitment to change from your Gen Y employee.

It also helps to build a stronger, more productive relationship. This stronger, more productive relationship will make future conversations easier and more effective. Because they can see you care about them and want to understand their perspective, they will care more about you and your perspective.

Also, because they feel respected, valued, and heard, they will most likely care more about pleasing you in the future. Isn’t that true for you?

Haven’t you been more interested in pleasing bosses who care about you?

Remind Your Gen Y Employee That You Want to Help her Grow Professionally

This is important for three reasons. First, as Gallup’s Q12 research shows, having a manager who cares about your professional development is a major driver of employee engagement. Second, professional development is a huge priority among Gen Y employees, so it’s especially important to remind them you want to help them in this area. Third, showing that you care about their development helps frame the discussion in terms of “We have the same goal here” rather than you and your Gen Y employee sitting on opposite sides of the negotiation table.

Add the “My Responsibility to You and …” Frame

When someone sees us differently than we do, or they’re not giving us what we want, it’s easy to take it personally. You can mitigate this by emphasizing that your responsibility to your Gen Y employee is to help them grow and succeed. Doing that involves helping them get the experience they need — rather than promoting them too early and setting them up to fail. Thus, you’re communicating that you recognize this isn’t just about you and your job. You’re saying “I really am thinking about what I believe is best for you, which is one of my responsibilities.”

Also, by stating that you obviously have a responsibility to your employer to grow employees — and not prematurely promote — it helps frame your position as you being a responsible manager, rather than you simply withholding something they want because you’re unreasonable.

A quick caveat: I understand that saying these things doesn’t guarantee your Gen Y employee will understand or appreciate your position. They might even question your sincerity. But, as with any difficult discussion, all we can do is everything we can to increase the odds that the conversation will go well. We can guarantee it will work.

Provide a Vision of Hope

You want your Gen Y employee to see that there is hope — that there is a path to get to where they want to go. You do this in part by being crystal-clear about what you want them to work on. You give examples of how you would want to see them act or respond.

I like the term “videotape descriptions” when describing the way to communicate clearly what you want. When describing what you want, imagine you are describing what you are seeing and hearing on a training video depicting the desired behavior. The more clear and specific you are, the more hopeful your Gen Y employee will feel about their chances of success. They know what the target is; they can see the goal.

You also provide a vision of hope by making it clear that you want to help them get there and by working together to create a professional development plan. You don’t want to leave it as “OK, here’s a laundry list of things you need to get good at. We’ll reconvene in six months to see how you’re doing.”

Working together to create a plan not only creates greater confidence that they’ll achieve their goal, it also makes it far more likely they will succeed.

7 Things to Remember

  1. “It takes time; be patient” will douse the flame of enthusiasm and ambition, and leave you with a disheartened, disengaged employee.
  2. You need to first shift your millennial employee from Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Incompetence.
  3. Give specific, crystal-clear examples.
  4. State explicitly how much you value the Gen Y employee’s enthusiasm and ambition.
  5. Remind your Gen Y employee that you want to help her grow professionally.
  6. Add the “My responsibility to you and…” frame.
  7. Provide a vision of hope.

So, Let’s Apply This…

Think of some conversations about an employee’s distorted perception of their readiness to advance that you’ve been avoiding. Think of how you can use these guidelines to increase the odds of that conversation going well. And then have that conversation.