Education for the higher educated
Published on: 6 November 2013
Organisatie: Ashridge Business School

Culture Shock: Gen Y and their managers in the workplace

Generation Y employees have different expectations from their work than their managers. A study reveals the different issues which are at play.

Recent Ashridge research of nearly 3000 managers and graduates globally reveals a disconnect between managers and their Gen Y employees on their approach to, and expectations of the workplace. As a result, retention of young people is becoming a major issue for organisations worldwide. 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 main cause for leaving.

Graduates are hungry for responsibility and self-fulfilment, struggle with the more formal communication style of their managers and place a much stronger emphasis on achieving good work/life balance. Their managers want team-players who fit the culture and desire solid experience and commitment.

Both groups are looking at the world of work through different lenses and not acknowledging the perspective of the other, causing puzzlement and sometimes frustration. In today's fast-paced world, it pays to step back and review the root causes of behaviour - upbringing, societal norms, world events and technology - that have shaped both young people and their leaders.

Four key themes emerge from the research

Expectations and Turnover

There are big differences in expectations between Gen Y employees and their managers. Graduates want positions of personal responsibility and trust, and non-routine work where they can make a real difference. Managers, on the other hand, want Gen Y employees that arrive in the organisation already equipped with the ability to communicate appropriately, fit into the culture and work successfully within teams.

Most graduates interviewed were happy to experiment throughout their twenties looking for experience and a fulfilling job. In both India and Europe nearly a quarter of graduates wanted to leave their current employment as soon as possible and a third expected to be gone within two years. Alarmingly, members of Gen Y don't aspire to the jobs of their more mature colleagues. They see their managers as burnt out, stressed and 'stuck' in repetitive roles.


This constant job-hopping not only reduces corporate return on investment from young employees, but is also giving rise to concerns about the judgement and decision-making capabilities of future leaders. Managers worry that 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.

A startling disconnect was that graduates think they lack technical skills, while their managers think they lack the harder-to-develop people skills. Although written communication and financial management were frequently below par, these trainable skills can be remedied. Managers are more concerned that graduates are coming into the workplace without vital soft skills such as office etiquette, verbal communication and emotional intelligence.

Gen Y employees often need help in understanding that they need to navigate the organisation and gain experience through their own efforts. "There is no patience with the process of how an organisation functions, the need to get buy-in to your ideas and to link good ideas into organisational purpose," said one senior manager interviewed.


The research reveals that globally members of Gen Y are very similar in attitudes and behaviour, whilst their managers around the world vary considerably. National culture plays a strong part in corporate behaviour. In the Middle East, India, Malaysia and China, for example, there is a greater respect for the hierarchy than in the US, UK and Europe. Decision-making is therefore more likely to be restricted to a small senior team and not transparent or accessible to those lower down the organisation. This behaviour causes frustration in younger people.

Family ties for Generation Y are strong all over the world, more so than for previous generations, which often means young people are reluctant to move abroad to gain additional experience. Women, however, are beginning to make headway in parts of the world where until recently they would not have been considered for senior roles.

The research highlights that organisations that successfully retain young employees put them through a rigorous recruitment process, selecting on attitudes and behaviour as well as culture fit (corporate/national) over degree level, subject or university attended.

Attitudes and Behaviour

Managers admire graduates for their fresh ideas and want to help them to fit into the workplace. They do, however, find the forceful and direct communication style of graduates and their apparent over-confidence a challenge. In general, the graduates interviewed felt they got on well with their immediate managers, although they struggled to communicate effectively with senior executives and felt their managers did not influence upwardly as well as they had hoped. They felt that their managers did not give them the right level of coaching and mentoring to succeed. One of the challenges is that members of Gen Y have grown up in an era of equality of status and like their manager to be a 'peer' or a 'friend' - a status that often makes leaders uncomfortable. Graduates felt that some leaders were more focused on their retirement and were unlikely to champion change. "In a company it is best to have the right mix of grey hairs and young people. The young people question the status quo which stimulates my generation to justify that status quo. You get a lovely synergy," said one UK oil industry manager.


So what are the opportunities for today's leaders and for those who may want to help as organisational consultants? The research highlights a number of practical steps to consider:

1. Start early with remedial development

Successful organisations establish the boundaries for behaviour and expectations early on in graduates' careers - in the first few weeks. Gen Y often needs help with issues such as office etiquette, face-to-face behaviour, respect, reflection, teamwork, personal impact and understanding organisational politics and processes. Missing skills, whether technical or behavioural, need to be developed early, to help graduates fit into the environment and feel a sense of achievement.

Equally, leaders may need time to understand and discuss the changing needs of employees and their attitudes to work. A number of organisations are holding workshops to help leaders reflect on how best to adapt the organisation to the future.

2. Provide quality coaching and mentoring

Gen Y employees want and need coaching and mentoring to help them succeed in the work environment. Yet, although their managers believe they play a role of coach/mentor, in the eyes of their young employees they are not succeeding. There are opportunities for discussion on these different perspectives and to review the effectiveness of managers in a coaching role, encouraging those with talent to perhaps take on wider responsibilities compared to their peers. Two-way mentoring is also successful where pairs of managers and employees mentor each other. Managers can share their business experience and members of Gen Y have strong abilities in exploiting social media, building strong external peer networks, and technology capabilities.

3. Connect before employment

There should be a greater emphasis on psychometric testing, behaviour, attitudes and cultural fit in the recruitment process to achieve a higher ROI, longevity and satisfaction from young employees.

Where there are obvious feeder educational establishments, there are opportunities to support industry-based courses, to advise/judge project work, to co-develop curricula and provide short-term employment opportunities such as internships and work experience. As one person noted, on students who had just completed a year in industry as part of their degrees: "They went in as children and came back to university as adults".

4. Develop experience

Gen Y is the 'fame' generation, expecting constant change and happiness. It is important to provide regular praise for achievements, rewards for persistence and to develop flexible career paths that reward achievement. Job swops, away-days in different departments, experience-sharing events and multigenerational project teams encourage experience and interest for all ages. Developing reflection on both achievements and areas for improvement, supported by coaching, is critical.

5. Hold up a mirror

Managers need to look closely at their own perceptions and preferred methods of operating to make sure they are not holding on to outdated views or methods, while young people need help in reflecting on their impact on others. Strategically, there is value in reviewing the differing attitudes of Gen Y to a work/life balance more slanted to 'life' and the implications as this generation begin to take control of organisations - for productivity, as well as health and well-being.

Reflection and discussion can often help to make better use of the unique contributions and strengths of the all generations in this changing world of work.

The summary research report 'Culture Shock': Generation Y and their managers around the world', and previous Gen Y research can be obtained from: