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

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.

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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.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 60 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at


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

  1. I think this is great coaching on how to have a difficult conversation with an employee. However I think labeling this a “gen Y” thing or a “millennial” thing is a little short-sighted.

    This is about being professionally naive, not about what decade you were born in. These situations have occurred for decades, probably shortly after the concept of a promotion was invented. This same advice would’ve worked 20, 30, 40 years ago and will work 20, 30, 40 years in the future.

  2. A bit off the subject but software developers are the classic example of “Unconscious Incompetence”. As standard we expect a skills matrix to accompany the CV. On a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being expert) I find they give themselves a 5 almost everytime regardless of years of experience. They then get found wanting when they have to do skills testing.

  3. Good Article David!

    I do agree with Steve, I think it’s unfair to label. I think too often the older generations are naive about how they acted when they were young, enthusiastic and ready to change the world.

    As a Gen Y, I get very frustrated about all the stereotypes given to my generation (ie job-hoppers, naive, arrogant, over-confident, etc). When I hear these comments from the older generations, I remind them that Gen Y is a product of the world they created. We were taught these habits, skills, attitudes by the world we grew up in.

  4. Thanks, David. As our friends at say so well:


    Sometimes the best solution to morale problems is just to fire all of the unhappy people.”


    Happy Holidays,


  5. This is a great article.

    Once again David proves to be one of ERE’s more insightful minds.

    Great advice on how to do things that might not be easy or comfortable in a way that is half diplomacy and half game changer in terms of a path forward.

    Great stuff.

  6. David, Great article. I would love to see more about coaching Gen Y recruiters in the future if possible either via articles or collaboratively in the responses to this post.

  7. David,

    After reading your article again and giving it some more thought, I have a question. The advise is great! But why is it directed at Gen Y? Are you saying that ONLY Gen Y employees want to be promoted before they are ready? And are you suggesting this advise is ONLY useful when dealing with Gen Y employees?

    This advise seems applicable to anyone!

  8. @ Derek: I think a substantial number Gen Y recruiters will be located in India and the Philippines.

    @ Logan: As a “boomer,” I can say that I have NOT sought to be promoted before I am ready- I have sought raises before I deserved them…



  9. Very thorough outline of useful advice for any business leader that needs to adapt their coaching style to accommodate differing performance and development perspectives. Though, I too find the generational distinctions unnecessary and even a bit tired.

  10. @ Kelly: Well said. IMHO, generalizing about a poorly-defined generational cohort of tens of millions of individuals is slightly more accurate than using their astrological signs to determine the same things…


    Keith “Boomer, Libra” Halperin

  11. Good article! I agree with a lot of the comments stating that this is not specific to Gen-anything, just good solid management. Couple of my own comments:

    1. I would add an 8th “to remember” – Follow Up! If you give those concrete examples of places to improve, and the employee takes them to heart and actually improves, you’d better be able to come through with the reward. I would hate to come back a year later and hear, “Ok, you’ve done x, now you’ve got to do y and z before you can be promoted”.

    2. If promotion isn’t an option, how about public acknowledgement of the employee’s contribution, a rotation into another area, or an expansion of responsibility? This might be an avenue to the “conscious incompetence” – showing the employee there’s much more to lean than they realize. There’s plenty of research (e.g. Herzberg) that backs up the motivating influence of recognition, satisfying work, etc.

  12. Thanks folks for taking the time to comment. Lots of points to respond to. I’m going to follow up with more later, but I wanted to acknowledge what was contributed at the moment…

    BTW, just before the article came out, I said to a colleague “I bet I’ll get comments like ‘Why are you singling out Gen Y?’ and ‘This applies to everyone, not just Gen Y…so why did you have to make it about a Gen Y employee’ and ‘Gen Y is just an artificial category’.”

    Anytime we discuss created categories and taxonomies to characterize people in generalized terms, it raises issues about the validity of such categories and generalizations.

    When I do programs on generational differences or “how to bring out the best in your Gen Y employees” I start out with six caveats. Here are the 3 that relate to our conversation:

    1. Any type of categorization or generalization—whether generational, personality style, or gender differences—can’t capture the complexity that is a human being. They are only attempts at doing what is a fundamental task of the human mind…making sense of an overwhelming amount of stimuli by creating categories. That’s one of the fundamental “jobs” of a developing child’s mind as they learn language and begin to name things. So…whether we’re talking about generational differences or Myers Briggs, or the DISC profile, it needs to be a given, I believe, that of course the categories aren’t perfect nor do they explain everything about a person, nor do all people from the same category think, act, or feel the same way. It’s like saying all green looks alike. Green is just an artificial category of the electromagnetic spectrum, and there are an infinitive number of shades of green.

    Back to the concept of “crude approximation”. Another point I make in workshops is that these are somewhat arbitrary date ranges. Those people who created the categories understand that. In fact, early proponents talked and wrote about a band of start/stop dates. So, as I say “If the general agreement is that Gen Xers are often considered to be people born after 1964 to around 1980 (again, depending on the “expert”), that doesn’t mean if you were born just before midnight on Dec 31st, 1964 you will be a Total Boomer, but if you were born 2 minutes later, you’ll be a Total Gen Xer. While that’s clearly ludicrous to think, so is to think that a year or two each way makes you “just like all the others” in your generation.

    2. There are a multitude of factors which shape a person’s worldview, work ethic, and interpersonal style. One of these factors is the social milieu into which the person was born and the norms, values, and assumptions that shaped them. I’ll talk more about this later. Some of these include parenting style, genetics, cultural norms, regional differences, and socioeconomic status. Therefore, it should be obvious that generational differences couldn’t possibly explain more than a fraction of any particular person’s way of being in the world. That being said, generational differences CAN explain some major themes. Again, I’ll talk about that in a moment.

    3. Generational cohorts aren’t clones. Because of Point #3, it’s clear that just because you share a generational label as another person, doesn’t mean that you demonstrate all of the same attitudes, characteristics, and behaviors. It’s like saying “All women…” or “All men…” While research shows there are clear neurological differences between genders, and research from a number of areas show interpersonal, empathy, and other generalized differences, these are NORMATIVE. It doesn’t mean that every woman has higher empathy than every man…for instance, or that every man is physically stronger than every woman, just because these are on average true. Thus, when we talk about generational differences, we’re talking about generalizations that, of course, have exceptions.

    So with those caveats, here are a few thoughts. I’ll be writing a full article on this because I think people miss out on a lot of useful awareness if they go black or white on:

    1. There is no such thing as generational differences vs. These are hard and fast categories that mean if you’re in that generation, that’s how you think, feel, and act.

    2. What we say about Gen Y is what we’ve said about youth throughout the ages vs. Everything that we notice about Gen Y is uniquely about this generation

    Just to clarify where I’m coming from both in this article and my approach to “bringing out the best in Gen Y employees”.

    1. The article was based on a real situation and inspired by one of the most common issues I hear from managers specifically about Gen Y employees, so it was written to help those managers look at THEIR perspective and approach to the situation they see as problematic. It wasn’t a slam on Gen Y employees.

    2. The suggestions in the article are, I believe, applicable to working with any employee, regardless of generation or age. In fact, although I’m a Boomer, when I had bosses, I would have liked them to give me feedback and coach the way I’m recommending in the article.

    3. That being said, I think it’s useful to recognize and acknowledge that we can’t help but be influenced by the social millieu we grew up in. Someone growing up in the USA during the Great Depression will obviously have different societal norms and influences than someone growing up in the tumultuous 60s, or someone growing up in an Eastern Bloc country when the “Iron Curtain fell”. From a US-Centric point of view, someone growing up in Manhattan will have different norms and social influences shaping them than someone growing up on a farm in Iowa.

    Carl Jung captured the effect of time and place and its influence:

    “We are born at a given moment, in a given place and, like vintage years of wine, we have the qualities of the year…of which we are born.”
    Carl Jung

    So…in my opinion, claiming there aren’t generational differences ignores the effect of the social milieu one grow up in which can’t help but have an effect.

    4. That being said, obviously people from the same generational cohort aren’t clones. Not all Millenials–or Boomers, or Gen Xers, or Veterans– act, think, or view the world the same way.

    It’s just like not all INFPs are alike, or all Leos are alike. That being said, there are commonalities–and differences– among individuals in any artificial category used to understand human differences, whether it is a generational or personality style taxonomy.

    It’s like a quote I heard when getting training in the Myers Briggs, which I think was attributed to Aristotle, but I haven’t been able to find it since. It went something like this:

    “Each man is like every other men, like some other men, and like no other man.” (you can supply the gender neutral version, this is what he wrote :-)). You and I share common traits of all (or at least most) human beings–such as the hunger for meaning a purpose in our lives. We also possess traits in common with some people, but not others. So perhaps you are very organized or very extroverted. You share that with other very organized and very extroverted people.

    You also have certain qualities and ways of being that are totally and uniquely you…that make you one of a kind.

    5. Some of the dynamics attributed to Gen Y employees are simply, in my opinion, simply a function of youth–such as tremendous optimism and confidence. Again, obviously you don’t have to be young to be optimistic and confident, but anybody with some years on them and the ability to self-reflect can recognize the difference in themselves when they had youthful optimism and confidence versus the more battle-weary skepticism and new idea-aversion that often comes with age. I believe this optimism and sometimes blissful unawareness of what is “not possible”—and then making it happen—is one of THE most important gifts of youth and sources of value young people provide their employer…and society.

    OK…this turned out to be WAY longer than I planned, but some great points were brought up and I wanted to respond. Thanks again for the insightful comments.

  13. I had two recurring thoughts as I read the article. The first being that many companies are simply not growing fast enough to accommodate all those ‘ready’ for a promotion. If you promote people when the individual is ready vs. when the company can support the additional cost burden, you risk impacting your margins. This is a good teaching moment for a younger employee, how would they internally sell the added costs without an associated increase in revenue expectations (or increased productivity)?

    Secondly, I don’t believe it’s a cop-out to use lack of experience as a reason. A large number of jobs cannot be mastered in 2-3 years. Training and intelligence are not substitutes for hands-on experience and learning from your mistakes in real-world situations. Malcolm Gladwell has his 10,000 hours theory in Outliers, which equates to roughly 5 working years.

    I think most companies would be wise to consider more rotational assignments and programs to keep employees longer and more engaged.

  14. @ David: Thanks again. BTW, I used to LOVE MBTI, etc., but now:
    ISTM that combining sophisticated data-mining techniques with algorithms like Amazon’s, MovieLens’s, and Pandora’s and clustering SW like PRIZM or MOSAIC might give a better insight into what given individuals/groups are like.


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