Be my Work Parent…Except, Not Really

I was prepared to hate this next chapter of “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy.” The buddy-buddy approach by educators or managers is patently wrong – it does a disservice to the student/young professional and sets undue pressure on the seasoned professional to shelter and shepherd. Universities historically stepped away from this role, so why should the workplace be different?  But my gut reaction was displaced by a quick clarification.

inlocoToday, the ongoing series on Bruce Tulgan’s “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy”  hits up Ch. 4: “Practice In Loco Parentis Management.” “Parent” means respected leader, boundary-setter, guide. Someone whose job requires they take a clear stake in that person’s development – a people manager that just happens to “get” how and why Gen Y professionals are different.

There are four ways managers can quite simply practice this kind of management. It’s not as hard as you think. Managers just have to be conscious of four things (Tulgan’s ideas in bold):

  1. Show them you care
  2. Give boundaries and structure
  3. Help keep score
  4. Negotiate special rewards in very small increments

1. Care enough to help this person succeed at work, at least whenever is working for you.

Get to know them as individuals. Stop thinking you need to know my ultimate dreams and aspirations – it’s enough for me you know my relationship status, aspired “next step” and enough for water cooler chat about my teams, charities or hobbies.

Invest the right amount of time. Tulgan is savvy here: Invest in a “star” and a “problem,” noting that while you want to encourage the best to succeed, by also targeting the worst you mitigate damage.

Don’t pretend – Gen Y has giant BS dectectors. Yup.

2. Give structure, boundaries. We’re a hyperscheduled generation. We like to individualize, but we also hate wasting time. Be careful to spell out expectations. If you want brainstorming but will ultimately run the project with little to no input, you better say so. Clear goals and specific guidelines are key. Gen Y wants to succeed, but will fault you, not ourselves, if the scope wasn’t clear and we spent time and failed at a task because it was poorly outlined.

Of course, it’s also key that Gen Y’ers know you are open to questions and assistance so we ask questions when even a little doubt pops up. We like guidance. We hate to feel dumb and were always told, “No question is a dumb question.” Don’t make us feel dumb, but also emphasize the importance understanding WHY the answer is what it is. Help us adapt to situations and problem-solve, or you’ll end up answering the same question again. We need to understand the context (which is the topic of the next chapter and I’ll argue the most important one in the book).

3. Keep score – but not against others. Gen Y’ers like to compete against themselves and improve on their own “scores” in a safe environment. You need a system, says Tulgan. He suggests point-based system of rewards, noting that any sort of system takes advantage of Gen Y’s transactional mindset. For every little bit in, there’s a gold star, a weekly shout-out or a bonus check.

Some people will always thrive in direct competition: Athletes, commissioned sales people, killer lawyers. However, those are also fields that allow for black/white, win/lose mentality. For most fields, help us become better employees by defining the terms for our own success – short term score keeping at its best.

4. Give small rewards in small increments. Tulgan points out that Gen Y has negotiated options since childhood. Most managers, I think, suffer from thinking they have no funds to disperse and therefore can’t reward high performers. Start thinking creatively, please.

It doesn’t necessarily mean financial rewards — you have to figure out what each employee wants. Is it flex time? A sabbatical to do service work or a special personal project? A work-and-reward mentality also is a huge plus in the intangible field of employee morale and enthusiasm.

By focusing on success, you create an employee who has positive momentum. Tulgan suggests to use any and all discretionary resources, including: Short-term schedule accommodations or PTO, extra training, exposure to decision makers, and written commendations in the employee’s file.

I can think of at least five more:

  1. Write a LinkedIn recommendation for the world to see
  2. Allow a young pro to participate in industry meetings and report on the topic to other employees
  3. Connect a young pro with a colleague of yours outside of work that could become a good mentor or outside source of inspiration.
  4. Public recognition – Gold stars do work, even if they are in the form of a mass email to the team recognizing specific efforts or a note tacked on a public bulletin board.
  5. Parking spaces – if you rotate them among senior leadership, think about getting an extra to share with junior team members. They’ll fight like crazy for it.
  6. Dibs on the next project based on performance on the previous one.

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