Mushing Millenials

My wife, who has returned to the workforce, recently expressed to me a real consternation with some of the younger people she has had to work with as peers and subordinates. While at first I just assumed that her frustration was mostly associated with simply re-entering the workforce after twenty years of raising children, I realized after further conversation that she is talking about “the Millenials” – both as individuals, and as a workforce vintage. I’ve previously blogged about the challenge of a new workforce vintage entering the job force, but I have not spent extensive time thinking about the problem until a dinner party conversation wherein a woman I respect offered that “we as mature (or more senior) workers have an obligation to meet the Millenials halfway – there’s much to be learned by everyone” — which I thought was in and of itself a pretty mature reaction to the overarching frustration that many have shared with me about these workers who range 18-28 years old.

I have been thinking about the challenge of managing the next generation of workers, based upon the characteristics that many of them exhibit, the source of that possible behavior, and how the Musher methodology might create a “connective bridge” which allows these young individuals and their new ways of thinking and doing to be effective within current management constructs which are in many ways valid, not only because they are the status quo, but because they have proven to work.

First, let’s describe the “problem”. A side bar article in the Friday, March 22nd 2013 Wall Street Journal, which restated the findings of the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania perhaps stated the issue(s) most succinctly when it reported that “recent college grads lack professionalism”. At a high level the most obvious issues were:

  • A sense of entitlement
  • Arrogance
  • Inappropriate appearance
  • Lack of punctuality
  • Irregular attendance
  • Dishonesty
  • Attentiveness
  • Sticking with a task through completion

Last, and perhaps most keenly observed, is the inappropriate use of social media (Facebook, Twitter) and mobile technologies (texting, emailing) during work hours — especially in meetings where these technologies are being used to contact non-work friends and family.

While these behaviors can be immensely frustrating to non-Millenials, my thought is to address behaviors directly, through the setting of expectations and immediate feedback, rather than through admonishment. In the right hand column below, I’m suggesting a strategy to manage through or counter-act the negative behavior in the left column.

A sense of entitlement Instilling a sense of progression (you are here, xyz position is there); explicit career pathing
Arrogance Ask the employee if they feel they are under-employed in their current role. If they feel they are, ask them what role they believe the are better suited to. In the event they are (likely) too inexperience for that role, be specific about the gaps you perceive in their experience and expertise to be in that role. Thoughtfully explaining what failure may or does look like and setting expectations as to how real leaders behave within the culture.
Inappropriate appearance Explicitness around your belief in the connection between professionalism and appearance
Lack of punctuality Encourage peer-based pressure to be punctual; cancel meetings if all are not in attendance; call out late-comers; have an open, “no excuses” policy
Irregular attendance Same problem, ask the employee if s/he understands the lack of respect shown to others demonstrated by irregular attendance
Dishonesty Simply make it a zero tolerance policy and that dishonesty is a short-to-medium term terminable behavior
Attentiveness Start with private conversations – “It seemed like you weren’t with us – is everything okay? The group notices that you are not really with this project. Should you be reassigned?” Move from there to openly demanding attentiveness. In meetings, you must set the example – “phones down, laptops closed” being one such example that you yourself must follow.
Sticking with a task through completion Be explicit that the completion of the assignment is the goal, and that incomplete, or late work will not be valued.

Now, to take the Millenials point of view, let’s go back to my colleague’s suggestion that we as mature executives should strive to meet the Millenials “in the middle”. Gary Hamel recently blogged in “The Facebook Generation vs the Fortune 500” that there are at least twelve dimensions of social, “on-line life” which are not only a reality for the Millenials, but which are also behaviors or phenomenon which have merit in their adoption in modern business:

1. All ideas compete on an equal footing.

On the Web, every idea has the chance to gain a following

2. Contribution counts for more than credentials.

On the Web, what counts is not your resume, but what you can contribute.

3. Hierarchies are natural, not prescribed.

clout reflects the freely given approbation of their peers. On the Web, authority trickles up, not down.

4. Leaders serve rather than preside.

On the Web, every leader is a servant leader; no one has the power to command or sanction.

5. Tasks are chosen, not assigned.

The Web is an opt-in economy…people choose to work on the things that interest them. Everyone is an independent contractor, and everyone scratches their own itch.

6. Groups are self-defining and -organizing.

On the Web, you get to choose your compatriots…Just as no one can assign you a boring task, no can force you to work with dim-witted colleagues.

7. Resources get attracted, not allocated.

On the Web, human effort flows towards ideas and projects that are attractive (and fun), and away from those that aren’t.

8. Power comes from sharing information, not hoarding it.

To gain influence and status, you have to give away your expertise and content…Online, there are a lot of incentives to share, and few incentives to hoard.

9. Opinions compound and decisions are peer-reviewed.

The Web is a near-perfect medium for aggregating the wisdom of the crowd—whether in formally organized opinion markets or in casual discussion groups.

10. Users can veto most policy decisions.

The only way to keep users loyal is to give them a substantial say in key decisions.

11. Intrinsic rewards matter most.

…human beings will give generously of themselves when they’re given the chance to contribute to something they actually care about. Money’s great, but so is recognition and the joy of accomplishment.

12. Hackers are heroes.

..online communities frequently embrace those with strong anti-authoritarian views.

For many managers of my vintage, some of these concepts are unnerving, insofar as they represent an upending of much of the command-and-control management philosophy we were largely trained in, conditioned to, and rewarded by. But there is a certain elegance to these newer concepts as well, as the democratize much of how we think about running a business, making it more about the employees — individually and collectively — who actually make the business run, rather than the political power apparatus of hierarchy which often derives its strength, and longevity, from conformity and fear. The Millenial workforce vintage may well represent an end-state to a five hundred year progression from autocracy and monolithic power to individualized, decentralized, network-based societal and work organization.

Clearly, the key to bridging the gap between newer and older workers is explicitness. Mature executive managers need to make their intentions clear to Millenials. “What are we fighting for? What’s important to this company?” are questions that this younger generation feels entitled to ask — they see it as a fundamental dimension of why they should work for one company over another, in one industry versus another. Explicitness also is important to Millenials in that they have spend most of their youth being parented in very structured, explicit ways — they have had much of their lives programmed. As employers we really can’t undo this: we need to accommodate and co-opt it.

In many ways, Millenials are better “sled dog stock” than we older executives were when we were young — Millenials want to know where they fit, how they fit, and what is the program. They want to be part of a team, and want to rely on a team to make them successful — but sometimes to the detriment of individual accountability. Arguably, these employees might prefer to be in a “hive” business model versus a “dogsled” business model, and perhaps in twenty years they will have the executive responsibility and latitude to create that sort of business culture and operation. In the meantime however, business will be mostly run using current conventions. I agree with my friend: it is incumbent upon Mushers to meet Millenials “halfway,” helping them understand that while you as the leader celebrate the power and potential of the team, you will nonetheless judge an individual on his or her own merit and personal production, as much as on the team’s overall results.

Therefore there can be no hiding in the pack.

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