Shortly after joining online dating company MarryU Inc. last September, Fu Yonggang clashed with founder and Chief Executive Huang Zhen at a product meeting. Mr. Huang suggested when a user clicks on the "chat" button on another user's profile page, the system would send an automated greeting to that user. Mr. Fu thought the function could make the user who initiated the conversation look insincere, undermining his or her chance to get a response. Their argument escalated into shouting and table pounding.
The two men have argued like that at least a dozen times since 26-year-old Mr. Fu came on board, according to both of them. Mr. Huang, a 38-year-old serial tech entrepreneur in Hangzhou, says he found Mr. Fu too blunt and stubborn in the beginning but had learned to appreciate his candor and passion. He put the younger man in charge of project management, and gave him several pay raises.
"I've stopped thinking of myself as someone who gives order," says Mr. Huang, adding that he recently fired a new employee who turned out to be too much of a yes-person. Mr. Fu says he did feel pressure in those arguments but he had to speak up when he felt he understood an issue better than Mr. Huang.
Millennials—generally defined as people born in the 1980s and 90s—are shaking up corporate cultures in the U.S. and other countries. In China, given its rapid societal changes in the past several decades, the generational divides are even wider.
In China, the cohort that is spurring the most change is called the "Post-90s" generation, describing people born in or after 1990. They are almost all only children, thanks China's one-child policy, and they're first to grow up when Internet access was widely available. They tend to be more open-minded, rebellious, individualistic and willing to challenge the authority than previous generations, says Eric Fish, author of the book "China's Millennials: The Want Generation."
The contrast, he says, is sharp even with Chinese born in the 1980s, given how rapidly living standards improved in the '90s and access to technology increased. Someone born in 1995 entered a Chinese economy more than twice its size in 1985, for example. As for their parents' generation, "It's an entire world apart," he says.
Chinese companies generally have had strict hierarchical structures and cultures in which bosses are rarely challenged and professional success largely depends on executing orders. Openly challenging the boss the way Mr. Fu did would be unthinkable to older Chinese workers. But now some older tech managers are realizing that the traditional approach doesn't work for their younger employees, who are eager to be heard and value personal fulfillment more than superiors' praises.
According to a 2014 survey of 160 employees at 22 tech startups in China, conducted by venture-capital firm China's Innovation Works, post-90s employees are driven much more by user satisfaction and personal development than people five or 10 years older.
A parallel survey by the same firm of 30 startup CEOs found that they consider younger employees both angels and monsters. Such workers can be a force for disruptive innovation, the CEOs said, but also pose big management challenges because they are reluctant to work overtime, place bigger emphasis on work-life balance, and have difficulty sustaining enthusiasm for work.
Tech companies are adapting to get the most out of these employees. Immediately after founding Dewmobile Inc. in Beijing in 2012, Frank Wang started hiring post-90s interns because his company's primary product, Zapya, is a private file-sharing app for users between 13 and 24. He needed their input to make the product a success.
Now 60% of the company's 110 employees are post-90s people, and Mr. Wang, who calls himself a post-60s, has developed close relationships with many of them after overcoming some shocks.
His young employees aren't afraid to tell him and other older colleagues—including graduates of top universities like Tsinghua and Stanford, with years of experience working in Silicon Valley—that their product ideas stink. "I have the responsibility to stop Frank from having unrealistic ideas about our users," says Cui Jianxiong, Zapya's 25-year-old iOS product manager. "I complain so much about our product and user interface that Frank nicknamed me 'sharp tongue.'"
Tech executives like Mr. Wang, who spent 15 years in the U.S. and whose family still lives there, say that while they appreciate post-90s employees' creativity and openness, they find some to be unreliable. They switch jobs frequently, and it isn't uncommon for them to not show up for job interviews—or for work, even after signing offer letters.
But while Mr. Wang found that these young employees are often reluctant to work as hard as his generation, they're more than willing to spend time on projects where they feel they have ownership. Serena Zhang, who started as an intern Web writer at the company in 2012, refused to work overtime until after she got her wish to work on an interactive-design project. "I worked until 2 a.m. every day on that first project," says Ms. Zhang, now a product manager. "It kind of felt like my baby."