03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Just Listen To Me!

Over the past few months I have been struck by the velocity of popular articles on praise, happiness and the collective indulgence of the twenty-somethings who seem to have their own rules and expectations. FORTUNE Magazine recently featured a cover story, "Manage Us? Puh-leeze" with the subtitle, "You raised them, now Manage Them."

As leaders (and parents) we need a Field Guide to understand Generation Y, the indulged, tattooed, pierced and impatient 24-29 year olds who seem to have no sense of boundaries and expectations. They are high maintenance and self-absorbed, but they come ready to work, if on their own terms, and they expect a lot of their bosses and themselves.

They also want happiness...who doesn't...but in the workplace they expect prizes and attention. More and more managers tell us that these new citizens of corporate America need a slap of reality. They lack perspective, and are only mildly curious about how they are doing. The want feedback, but aren't sure how to ask for it. In truth, they want what 40 and 50 somethings want: leaders they can respect, clear guidance and a path to achieving something personally satisfying, but ultimately, important to the enterprise.

The irony is that one of the deficits we find in many leaders is that they can suffer from the corporate version of attention deficit disorder: they don't pay attention, don't acknowledge contributions, aren't present in conversations, barely listen or express appreciation or give thoughtful feedback. They don't think about thanking, and they often seem ungrateful. They assume everyone understands why.

I found guidance in a wise book by Steve Harrison, The Manager's Book of Decencies: How Small Gestures Build Great Companies. Steve, Chairman of Lee, Hecht Harrison, in describing his father's role as a psychiatrist, writes "My father's job was to listen--perhaps the ultimate decency of all." As most managers know, there are even more decencies a company can extend to its employees--small decencies like a coffee cart, a work-at-home day, introductions at meetings, and the freedom to choose projects that interest them. And then there are large decencies like company-wide mentoring programs, flexible schedules/shifts, defined employee rights, gestures of gratitude, and inviting employees to voice their opinions and concerns.

This book provides a list of these decencies, categorized under chapter titles like Consideration Decencies, Recognition Decencies, and Executive Humility Decencies, that can lead to workplaces where people are excited to come to work and happy to do their jobs. Harrison profiles a number of decency-extending companies like Lee Hecht Harrison, Disney, HP, Nabisco, Starbucks...the list goes on. Here's a brief excerpt from Harrison's book about building great companies:

"Creating environments that employees describe as "a great place to work" and in which employees are free to speak their minds relies on the practice of decencies on a regular basis by everyone in the organization. It also takes leadership at the top to start the process, reinforce the efforts along the way, and communicate the long-term benefits of creating and sustaining an organization culture based on trust. These practices go beyond the leaders at the top to become common acts among people throughout the organization."

In all of this I feel compelled to express some compassion for our CEO clients who face daily performance pressure from the Street, shareholders, their employees and competitors, to say nothing about their need to connect with their families, friends and have something that approaches a life outside the office. We don't use the word "balance" anymore, for life and business complexities make that tougher than ever. Instead, all of us strive to better integrate all the players and priorities in our life.

A wise executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith, notes that there are things we can do to more deeply engage colleagues, partners and pals of all ages: ask for feedback ("How am I doing? How can we be more effective together?"), apologize when you've screwed up, listen more deeply and often, and say "thank you." Gratitude is not an abstraction. It opens doors and builds mutual respect.

Not bad advice no matter what age we are.