Q What's the best way to manage and motivate young workers who have an inflated sense of entitlement?

Brian Fitzgerald
Co-Founder and President
Gorilla Nation
Los Angeles

Before you write off Gen-Y in toto, remember that youth has always appeared lazy, undisciplined, and impatient to its up-by-our-bootstraps elders. This new generation does have its quirks, but young people can prove eager and industrious if you know how to work with them.

Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking, a research firm that focuses on generational issues in the workplace, describes Gen-Y as a sort of perpetual customer. For more than a decade marketers have aggressively targeted young people and given them everything their way--from cell phones to sneakers. "They've been treated like customers all of their lives, and they think like customers," says Tulgan. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Many successful companies practice servant leadership and describe employees as "internal customers"--business-speak for "we strive to make workers happy." Your twentysomethings are down with that, and that kind of culture does tend to improve morale and reduce turnover.

Gen-Yers work hard when they know what they're getting in return. Vague talk of a vague future ("Keep your nose to the grindstone, sonny, and you can soar as high as your dreams!") means less to this group than specific short-term goals, according to Tulgan. Spell out in concrete terms what it takes to earn a bonus, an extra day off, or a promotion. Make them stretch by creating goals that exceed your expectations: an extra 20 sales calls a week or delivery of a project a month before the client needs it. And the more you can pair young workers with veterans, the better. Even bright young people don't know everything, and under the right circumstances they might even admit it. Having a newbie learn from a more experienced co-worker--or maybe be bailed out of a tough situation by one--is an all-natural way to bring down a swelling sense of entitlement. Consider creating an advocate system, says Cam Marston, who has studied generational issues in the workplace for 12 years and is CEO of Marston Communications, a consultancy in Charlotte, North Carolina. More like counselors than mentors, advocates help young employees understand how to reach their career goals. The most effective advocates are managers--but not employees' bosses or human resources representatives, says Marston.

Finally, assume your young charges will cause you headaches. Also assume they are worth it. "This new generation might be the highest maintenance in the history of the world," says Tulgan, not holding back the hyperbole. "But it's also going to be the highest performing."