Managing Gen-?

Laura Aiken
September 20, 2012
Written by
If a young person has ever made you shake your head in disbelief, don’t fret; you are amongst 100 per cent of adults who’ve passed the ripe age of 30. Today’s twentysomethings are a new breed for their employers, who have described managing this techno-prolific, highly nurtured batch of young adults as a puzzling and frustrating experience. “They just don’t share our values,” laments many a manager. And to a degree, they’re right.

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There are four generations in the Canadian workplace: matures/builders (born 1945 or earlier), baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964), generation Xers (born between 1965 and 1979) and millennials (born 1980 or later). Three scholars – Sean Lyons of the University of Guelph, Eddy S. W. Ng of Dalhousie University and Linda Schweitzer of Carleton University – published Generation Career Shift, a comprehensive study of millennials and the values of the four generations – in 2011. Over 3,000 Canadians were surveyed as part of the professors’ study, which drew the conclusion that matures, boomers and gen-Xers had been “playing nice for over a decade.” The tension was with the millennials, the 25 per cent of the workforce whose behaviour on the job was different than what has been supported for a long time. We’ve got four different generations at work and each successive cohort is increasingly individualistic.

Inside the millennial mind
To understand how to better manage the youngest cohort, we must first take a look at their shared characteristics. Some of the terms used to describe millennials are negative, or even offensive. Negative stereotypes hurt this group, making it even more important to reach out and understand the intrinsic value at play behind the perception of them. Note, this discussion is about the perceived shared characteristics of one group. People are individuals and typically have some rather than all traits associated with their age group. For example, it is often assumed that older people are bad with technology, but this isn’t always the case.

Millennials lead all four groups in the value they place on advancement, fun and co-workers, while the boomers and mature crowd place more emphasis on wanting information, the authors of Generation Career Shift found. Hypothetically, this could be because the youngest group is used to information on demand, and perhaps think most anything can be found rather easily. Study evidence on millennials suggests they are more individualistic, have less need for social approval, have higher self-esteem and are more narcissistic than the generations before them. Millennials typically feel a job should meet their needs and they are obligated to leave one that doesn’t. Elders have perceived the young cohort as entitled, autonomous, self-absorbed, abrasive, imaginative and defensive.

Millennials also have lofty expectations. In 2010, the study found their expected starting salary was $45,500, bumping up to $76,500 in five years, and an anticipated peak earnings of $149,000 … although less than two per cent of Canucks make this kind of money. Sixty-eight per cent expect to be promoted within 18 months and 35 per cent within a year. “Millennials [are] not savvy about personal finance and may be misinformed about the kind of money people typically make in their careers,” remark the authors.

Millennials have a complex view of their place at work. On one hand, they are high-performance, high-potential and high-maintenance, notes author Chip Espinoza in his book Managing the Millennials: Discover the Core Competencies for Managing Today’s Workforce. They have a high view of themselves and think they work better and faster than others. “They perceive themselves to be ‘in waiting,’ held back by well-meaning elders whose best years have come and gone,” writes Espinoza. One would think a person so described would feel very self-empowered in their career, but findings suggest not so much. When it comes to locus of control, which is either external or internal depending on whether you think others are the determinant behind your success (external) or you are (internal), millennials have a higher external locus of control than any other generation, reported Generation Career Shift. The report also found that in matters of personal pride, each generation successively expects to have less and less achievement on the job.

Requirements of an effective manager
“At the core of the millennial phenomenon is that they do not have the same need or know how to build relationships with their managers or authority figures,” writes Espinoza. For managers, this information combined with the social expectations millennials put on the workplace means the approach needs to be focused on relationships more than systems. “Young people are not going to outgrow their values,” warn the authors of Generation Career Shift. It is up to managers to adapt, but that doesn’t mean pander. It does mean being wary of overusing a position of power, because this batch of young adults needs empathy, says Espinoza.

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If you want to keep four generations happy in the workforce, engage them in the right way with meaningful incentives.

 
Leaders who were having success with millennial management in Espinoza’s book often shared a common history as a volunteer for a youth organization. This experience helped them learn how to initiate relationships and have the patience to set expectations where a person is at, rather than where the leader wants them to be. Good managers leave their own bias at the door and start with the other person’s expectation.

Met expectations are the biggest requirement for job satisfaction. Make communicating expectations often and clearly with your staff a high priority.

Addressing entitlement
The perception that millennials are an entitled bunch is a common one. Behind that perception and the very reason for its expression is the fact that this group intrinsically values rewards, writes Espinoza.

This means managers must create incentives that satisfy the expectation and desire for rewards. They also must reward the right things in the right way, offering something of value, clearly stating expected outcomes and providing timely and fair performance reviews. They should frequently share objectives and offer praise. Espinoza notes that managers often experience stress because millennials have unrealistic expectations. Having clearly outlined objectives and an incentive program is one way to address this while providing them with the information to create more realistic expectations.

Incentives can, however, become a frustrating process for staff and management. In his research, Espinoza found that millennials have a particularly selective perception when it comes to incentives. “One very important ‘aha’ we experienced in our interviewing process was that millennials interpret incentives as guarantees.”

For example, if you tell one of your millennial bakers that once they finish preparing that dough you will discuss him or her getting off work early, the person hears “if you finish that dough you can leave.”

Selective perception is when a listener unintentionally filters out some of what is said because it contradicts something he or she wants or believes.

Millennials are a restless bunch. Motivate them with a variety of tasks to try. Use short- and long-term rewards that are memorable and customized for their personalities. Let them help create the incentive program, suggests Espinoza. People are more likely to support something they had a hand in making.

Tap into their creativity and willingness to embrace doing things differently. In short, addressing an attitude of entitlement requires offering incentives they value, being clear about expectations and results and providing constructive feedback on their development regularly.

Disarming defensiveness
Your millennial staff can act defensively out of a root value of achievement, argues Espinoza. Effective managers will need to become proactive in conflicts and good at de-escalating intense situations.

One millennial in Espinoza’s book was quoted as saying: “We do not expect you to be our best friend but when you evaluate or critique us we want you to do it in a friendly way,” to which the author notes: just like their parents did. He goes on to suggest using your own mistakes as fodder for teaching lessons to show that you too are still growing and learning. Also, keep things as informal and conversational as the situation can bear as the more dramatic and formal the confrontation, the more anxiety will be created. Millennials are easily concerned about the state of the relationship and it is helpful to ensure that you let them know the critique doesn’t affect how you feel about them. Embrace resistance, and hearing the word “why.” This cohort likes to have the reasoning behind the rules in place.

Autonomy and flexibility
Work-life balance and flexibility is a big priority for millennials. Espinoza uses the example of a retail manager who created a scheduling team to address this need in his staff. The scheduling team was made up of regular employees who created and managed the store schedule. The employees had ownership and each employee needed to sign off on it. “A headache became a leadership development opportunity and being a member of this team became a desirable position,” writes Espinoza.

This strategy held the manager’s staff accountable and they valued this autonomy as something they didn’t want to lose. Espinoza also describes a technique called flexing, basically being more fluid and transitional over the passage of time: “Flexing is the dynamic for an ongoing dialogue and negotiation of expectation.” He warns not to play favourites and that you don’t have to always be flexible but be sure to be fair.

Goodbye, bias
The youth are energizing, creative and packed full of potential. Know your own efficacy in engaging them. Responsibility to adapt lies with those with the most responsibility, although intuitively it can feel very much the other way around. Part of successful relationships with people, including staff, is leaving room to do things another way. Don’t compare yourself. Let your bias go. You may find some of the mystery and tension that has come with millennials in the workplace disappears right along with it.

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