From the May 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

The Generation X stereotype is that those born between 1966 and 1978 are lazy, anti-authority slackers with an ultrashort attention span and absolutely no loyalty to their employers. Sound harsh? That verdict was loudly echoed in a recent survey of small-business owners. A stunning 65 percent said Gen X's work ethic is worse than that of prior generations, with 49 percent contending Gen X simply isn't willing to work hard, according to Cleveland-based small-business lender Key Corp.

Is this sweeping put-down accurate? Not according to the many management experts who insist Gen X workers are top quality and highly educated (more have attended college than any prior generation). More important, "These are the employees who are coming into the workplace," says Rebecca Haddock, a career counselor at the University of San Diego. Since these are today's--and tomorrow's--workers, you've got to learn how to motivate Gen X for best results.

Small-business owners who have learned how to handle Gen Xers are profiting as a result. "If you allow slackers to work for you, that's what you'll get. But I don't have any slackers on my payroll--my people all work hard," says Denise Pagura, owner of Dublin, Ohio-based Northern Lights Tree Farms, a Christmas tree grower and multistate retail operation that employs some 50 Gen Xers in peak seasons. "Set your standards high enough, and many will rise to meet them."

"They will work very hard and very long hours if you manage them properly," agrees Pamela Hamilton, founder and president of Collaborative Communications Inc., a Cambridge, Massachusetts, public relations agency. Hamilton says 12 of her 13 employees are Gen Xers, and "it is a challenge to manage them, but if you do, you'll get terrific results."

Motivating Forces

A big hurdle, according to Hamilton, is that the age-old motivational carrots--loftier job titles and more pay--won't work magic with this group. "What gets these folks up in the morning is very different from why baby boomers woke up. They are not interested in climbing the conventional job ladder. Offer them an extra $10,000 per year, and they won't necessarily hop jobs," says Hamilton. "What's critical to Gen Xers is feeling they have an impact on what the business is doing. Titles don't matter to them, but job responsibilities do. They really want to feel as though they are contributing."

These different motivators link directly to the big goof most managers make when handling Gen Xers: Don't view and treat them as a young you, says Richard Thau, executive director of New York City-based fiscal policy advocacy group, Third Millennium, and co-author of Get It Together by 30 (Amacom). "To believe this generation is like its predecessors is wrong, but that's a common mistake baby boomers make," says Thau.

How is Gen X different? A key difference is that "this generation prizes its individuality," says Thau. Proof of this: Many Gen Xers even deny they are part of a generation--what they want to be is individuals, period. And that shapes how they need to be managed. "Management has to recognize them as people with individual needs. You shouldn't try to force-fit people into the same mold," says Thau.

Case in point is flextime--Gen Xers thrive on it. "I tell my staff I need at least 40 hours a week of hard work, but they have a say in what hours they work," says Thau, who manages three Gen X employees. Ditto for dress codes. Gen Xers often have a flair for the unusual in appearance, and when it doesn't impact the work, why make it an issue?

Mind you, Thau is not urging disruptive behavior be condoned, but when there's room for flexibility, bend a little. The payoff can be immense, he promises: "Provide a degree of choice, and members of this generation flourish."

The Parent Trap

The other big goof with Gen Xers is "parenting us," says Melissa Daimler, a 27-year-old career coach in New York City. It's understandable that many managers parent younger workers--"many have children of their own that age," Daimler says--but it's no way to inspire an employee to achieve. "Many managers don't even realize it, but they don't trust young workers to do the job without direct supervision. That causes resentment among Gen Xers."

Worse still, parenting Gen Xers backfires because there is a strong anti-authoritarian streak among them. "The old business rule was `Do what I say because I'm the boss.' That doesn't work with this generation," says Barbara Fagan, a management consultant in Healdsburg, California. "Gen Xers won't follow a rule until they understand and value it for themselves." That puts the onus on management to explain the "what" and "why" of decisions and rules--Gen Xers insist on a lot more communication than prior generations--but when management is committed to ongoing employee education and involvement, Gen Xers respond positively, says Fagan.

"They are desperately looking for somebody to help guide them through the business process," Fagan continues. "They don't want you to do the job for them--or tell them exactly how to do it--but they respond to a manager who says `Let me show you how to play to win.' The leader who can communicate in that vein will get the loyalty of this generation."

More specifically, Daimler suggests, "check in regularly with your Gen X employees. Don't check to see if they are doing the job right--that sends the wrong parental message--but check in to see if they need any support or guidance."

Then, too, whatever you say to Gen Xers, plan to stick by it. They quickly turn on a boss who doesn't walk the talk: "You have to do what you say you'll do," says Fagan. "If a Gen Xer sees underhanded conduct, he'll absolutely reject that authority figure. But if he sees personal integrity, he's behind you 150 percent."

Myth And Reality

What about the legendary short attention span of Gen Xers? The label isn't false, says Haddock--"this is the MTV Generation"--but is it all bad? Maybe in a slow-moving corporate behemoth it's a negative, but in a thinly staffed entrepreneurial business where workers wear many hats, this trait may be a plus. "Generation Xers thrive with multitasking and are happy doing three things at once," says Haddock. "A job with plenty of variety keeps them challenged."

Another knock against Xers is that they flit from job to job. "If they feel challenged and valued, they are satisfied employees," counters Fagan. "If they don't, they're out the door. This is a high-energy generation that bores easily. It's a challenge to keep them engaged." But keep heaping challenges on Gen Xers, and, more often than not, they'll rise to meet them. This is a very talented, highly capable group.

Sound like good news for a small business? There are still more positives: "Gen Xers don't want to be just cogs in the wheel. They want to get recognized for what they do," explains Haddock, who says the anonymity of much work in Fortune 500 companies is a real turnoff for this generation. "They want to feel valued and want to know how they fit into the company's bigger picture."

In fact, when it comes to hunting for top Gen X job candidates, "an entrepreneurial environment is a recruiting advantage," says Haddock. "The entrepreneur can compete for and get very good Gen Xers, including those who have put in a few years on a big company's payroll, because they really want a place where they can shine--and for many, a small business is that place."

Robert McGarvey writes on business, psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or ideas, e-mail rjmcgarvey@aol.com.