Challenges of Coaching Gen Y Employees

Author: David Lee | Source: HCI | Published: January 19, 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:

  • Listen to, and respect, your feedback now and in the future.
  • Stay.
  • Remain engaged if they stay.

Just recently, I was coaching a senior executive who was feeling frustrated with one of his young managers. Jenna (not her real name), a Millennial, firmly believed she had mastered her present position and was ready to move on.

The senior executive, Bill (not his real name), 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. Doing these things—and being skilled at them—is especially important when dealing with your Millennial employees.

Don’t adopt an “It takes time; be patient” position. It 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 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.

Click here for Part II: How to Address the Emotional and Relationship Aspect of Giving Feedback.

David Lee is the founder of HumanNature@Work and an internationally recognized thought leader in the area of optimizing employee engagement and in onboarding. He has used storytelling as a teaching and transformation tool for over 20 years. He is the author of over 60 articles and book chapters that have been published in trade journals and books in the US, Europe, Australia, India, and China. For more of his articles, go to

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