By Kayle Graham
There have been many rants, raves, and diatribes from the “Millennial perspective” over the last few years – some more controversial than others. There’s also no shortage of complaints from those who “just don’t get us”. While I am a Millennial, I cannot claim to speak for every Millennial on the planet. However, I can provide you with the highlights of some research I recently completed through interviews with a cross-section of my peers to help shed some light on all the confusion.
Humans have always found ways to manufacture societal groups and foster “us vs. them” mentalities. While there are certainly commonalities among generational groups, there is little to be gained by judging others primarily based on the generation to which they belong, which can be particularly detrimental in the workplace. From the many peers I have spoken with on the subject, I’ve gathered that this generational tension seems particularly prevalent between Baby Boomers and Millennials, who, due to extremely different cultural influences (and notable advancements in technology) throughout their upbringing, tend to have conflicting attitudes that impact their working styles.
Millennials seem to hold common stereotype biases about Boomers and label Boomers as anything from highly competitive and independent, to technology-averse bureaucrats. On the other hand, Boomers typically label Millennials as collaborative and socially conscious, but flaky and entitled. It is inaccurate to put your entire workforce into generational boxes, because the reality is that people are so much more complex than one simple label can encompass. These are prejudices that only harm our interactions, and allowing ourselves to be swayed by them can and does create barriers to success.
The first question I would ask anyone struggling with inter-generational tension is: “What do you believe to be the root cause of the problem?” These are the three most common points of conflict mentioned by those I interviewed.
- Authenticity in communication and mutual respect
- Gaps in technology and efficiency
- Focus on personal growth and professional development
Authenticity in communication and mutual respect
A common desire among many Millennials is to feel respected and to build authentic and genuine relationships. This could be a generational factor or just a sign of a value shift in younger populations.
“They want work to afford them the opportunity to make new friends, learn new skills, and connect to a larger purpose. That sense of purpose is a key factor in their job satisfaction; according to our research, they’re the most socially conscious generation since the 1960s.”
(Meister & Willyerd, 2010)
Honest and open communication coupled with regular feedback is the most important first step to break down barriers. Workplace relationships between the generations can feel less authentic when boundaries are up. Without the commonality of experiences, people are less open to share. A friend who worked at a major company with large age disparities expressed the following to me:
“I noticed that older co-workers would talk to each other about their kids, but wouldn’t share that stuff with people our age. It’s almost like talking to a parent – there are just certain topics of conversation that aren’t natural.”
He went on to say that while those boundaries may not seem like a relevant thing, it can cause a level of formality and a lack of authenticity that can grow into tension and poor communication. Simply encouraging co-workers across age groups to bond and break down those walls can have a huge impact on the type of culture and interaction that can result. Achieving a higher comfort level between co-workers can decrease the frequency of miscommunications and misunderstandings that occur. It will also help to improve the level of collaboration that exists between them – which can lead to a higher quality of work produced.
Another friend voiced an appreciation for the active feedback loop she shares with her manager. This is especially important for less collaborative work environments when you aren’t sure that you are adding value or making a difference.
“You need to be told if you’re doing a good job.”
Technology and efficiency
The growth of technology and the impact of the internet have fundamentally changed the way our society behaves and functions. Millennials, most of whom grew up with access to technology, have never known a world where they could not learn whatever skills or knowledge they desired by simply searching the web. Today, virtually anyone can become an expert at virtually anything by simply spending enough time on their computer or smartphone. For older adults who were not exposed to this technology, it can seem daunting and a bit disconcerting, and resentment seems quite natural.
There is also resentment that develops among young people when we feel that the policies that made sense for our predecessors no longer make sense today.
“We had to sit through a 3 hour meeting to learn how to use a program on an iPad. We could’ve just been given a pdf on how to use it, instead of going through all of that.”
One way to boost collaboration and improve relationships is reverse-mentoring. This can be mutually beneficial, as Millennials have much to learn from Boomers and their many years of experience. Similarly, Boomers can learn from Millennials in the process.
“A Millennial is matched to an executive and assigned to teach him or her how to, say, use social media to connect with customers. It’s an effective way to give junior employees a window into the higher levels of the organization, so that when the mentees retire, the younger generation has a better understanding of the business.”
(Meister & Willyerd, 2010)
Taking full advantage of the different strengths that the members of your workforce possess will yield an overall increase in added value. Rather than viewing the amount of time your younger peers spend attached to their smartphones as a dividing factor, use them as a resource to better understand how to adapt your product or service to the ever-changing digital landscape. For example, If your marketing department is struggling to reach Millennials, ask the Millennials at your disposal what they respond to. Many companies do this already through market research or digital gurus, but for smaller businesses with less access to vast stores of tech professionals, the Millennial at the desk beside you could be the digital resource that you’ve been seeking.
Personal growth and professional development
Contrary to what many believe, not every Millennial wants to work in an office with craft beer on tap and frequent wacky team building excursions. I mean, sure, that sounds nice, but we aren’t all unrealistic. Many people think that we want to be treated like special “snowflakes” or handed things that we haven’t earned, but the truth is that we just want to be respected, or at least acknowledged, for what we bring to the table.
Research shows that we desire to feel fulfilled by our work, perhaps more than any of our predecessors. We will seek out roles that fulfill us, and that is more powerful than many realize. When you feel truly satisfied in the role or field you are in, you devote more of your effort to it and produce better results.
If you hope to retain Millennial employees, one surefire way to improve those odds is creating a sense of fulfillment. We don’t always need to be saving the world or rescuing puppies, but even little efforts can go a long way. A friend of mine knows that her current role won’t be her “forever” job, but has held her position for multiple years now.
“Everyone at work sits at their desk all day and I don’t think I could do that forever. That’s not what’s going to make me happy. My boss knows that and has made sure to try to leave opportunities open for me. She’s been managing people for so long that she has learned how to manage someone well, and how to get someone to stay for more than a year. She encourages me to pursue my master’s degree and offers to send me to conferences. She knows that there’s not much upward mobility in my current role, so she is trying to help me move forward in other ways, so that I feel like I am still growing and moving forward.”
Simply asking what someone’s professional or personal goals are can help you understand what it is that will provide them with a higher level of job satisfaction. This also demonstrates that you have respect for them as an individual and will work with them to encourage their growth and success.
Another friend of mine had a similar comment, stating that his manager “is hoping to provide as much growth, mentorship, etc., regardless of how long [employees] plan to stay”. While you can’t stop every employee from leaving, treating them as individuals by investing in what motivates them will encourage retention, and will have the additional benefit of creating a reputation that attracts new and desirable talent.
Young people do not have the many years of experience that our older co-workers possess. While this means that we have much to learn, it also means that we are less likely to have assimilated to many long-accepted workplace norms. While there is an inherent value in experience, there is also something to be recognized in innovation and cultural growth. We still question the things that many of our predecessors have long since accepted as “just the way things are done in the workplace”. Many of us have a lower tolerance for policies and organizational structures that appear inefficient or ineffective. I know that to many people who have spent considerable time working their way up the ladder, these types of attitudes may seem like the complaints of spoiled children who don’t understand yet how things work.
There are also those who feel that we haven’t yet earned the right to enact change in the workplace, as we haven’t yet paid our dues. To those who feel this way, I can only express that our intent is not to undermine or discredit your knowledge and experience. We aren’t trying to say that we know better, or that we have all the answers. Those that I spoke to were very clear that they just want to start the conversation and open the lines of communication. We were all in agreement that the way forward would be to combine innovation and fresh perspectives with your knowledge and expertise to reach an optimal result. Many top companies are already doing this, and it has yielded impressive results.
On a smaller scale, an immediate step towards remedying any problems or tension at work is to try to connect with the members of your staff as human beings. The age-related traits of the different members of your team do not impact their DISC profile, their fundamental personality, or what their hopes and dreams are for the future. When you set aside the differences, and just view each other as people, it is much easier to find common ground.