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The Problem with Millennials: Is It Really a Thing…or Not?

By Diane Bock

Diane BockIs your organization worried about attracting, leading, developing, and retaining Millennials? I think I just heard a collective “duh!” coming back at me. After all, those born between 1980 and 2000 make up more than a third of the workforce now. It makes sense that you’d care about aligning your people strategies to the expectations and characteristics of Millennials.

Or maybe it doesn’t.

As you work on the Millennial employee challenge, do you wonder if you have the information you need and whether you’ve put your finger on the right questions to ask?

The Problem with MillennialsThere’s great power in asking the right questions. Take the case of the 1960-70’s “cola war” between Coke and Pepsi. At that time, individual servings of Coke came in an awesome and iconic glass bottle shape. Pepsi, wanting to best the renowned Coke bottle design, put a team together to answer the question, “What should be our bottle shape?” They came up with a lovely swirling design, but did not produce the lift in revenue they were hoping for.

Pepsi later saw revenue rise after they tasked the design team with a new and better question: “How can we sell more Pepsi?” That’s how the 2-liter bottle got invented. The better question changed the game completely.

What’s the right question?

In light of the wisdom on asking the right questions, I’ll toss out an idea. How about if we change the first question we ask about Millennials? Let’s not apply our brain power to: “What are the special needs and problems posed by employees from the Millennial generation?” Let’s first explore the answer to, “Is there a unique problem to be solved for Millennials, worth an extra significant financial investment?”

I’ve been investigating the subject of Millennials for several months and I’m seeing a trend.  Most articles are no longer decrying the entitlement, neediness, disloyalty, and laziness that are the supposed hallmarks of Millennial workers. Instead the so-called research suggesting that Millennials pose all manner of unique attitude and behavior problems is increasingly found to be folklore and junk science.

More robust research and recent articles now say that differences between generations at work are small, or are explained more by age and stage of life than by generation. People in their 20’s have always been a bit more full of themselves than their older co-workers (on average). Younger workers have always been more likely to leave a job sooner than their more seasoned counterparts.

However, as we found from a supplemental analysis conducted with our Global Leadership Forecast research database, intentions to stay in their jobs increased more for Millennial leaders over the past year than for those in other generations. Even if there are small differences in likelihood of staying, this gap is closing fast.

For a recent comprehensive review of the research on different generations, check out this article published in the Harvard Business Review. The key advice given is this: “It’s likely that companies pursuing Millennial-specific employee engagement strategies are wasting time, focus, and money. They would be far better served to focus on factors that lead all employees to join, stay, and perform at their best.”

So, it looks like the answer to the important first question about Millennials is no. The problem with millennials? It’s not really a thing.

Why do we want to define, label, or categorize others?

Speaking of good questions to ask, why have we been so susceptible to the trash talk about younger workers? Why have we found it so easy to believe that it is risky or difficult to hire and work with them? And why did we not automatically find it ludicrous when “experts” offered a way to define, label, and categorize a group of people with more than 50 million in their ranks in the U.S. alone?

Psychologists can defend us by pointing out the neuroscience. Our brains are wired to categorize and label. It’s natural and mostly necessary. It’s efficient and saves energy. Our brains love that. Over eons, our very survival has depended on being able to instantly recognize whether someone is a friend or foe. We want and need tools that help us understand and predict the world around us, so we can take appropriate actions. There’s no time to be uncertain. Uncertainty is intolerable. It’s no wonder we reach for the easy button of stereotyping to give us answers. Even wrong answers.

Pigeon-holes are for pigeons

When it comes to understanding people between the ages of 16 and 36, there is only one attribute that applies to them all…they are ALL between the ages of 16 and 36. That’s it. And no one needs to explain this to Millennials. Millennials have already rejected the pigeon-hole into which some “experts” want to put them. And isn’t that just like Millennials…questioning authority. Oh wait, it’s the Baby Boomers who are most known to question authority. I guess the Millennials are just asserting their independence. Aw, snap! That’s not right either. It’s the Gen X’ers who have the key attribute of being independent.

Sigh. See what a slippery slope is this generational pigeon-holing business? Obviously, using stereotypes or labels that might apply on “average” to some members of large groups of people is not a solid foundation upon which to build an organization’s people strategies.

The good news is you don’t have to have a unique approach to millennials or a complex set of people strategies, different for each generation. Such approaches would most likely confuse or alienate people anyway, let alone cost more money.

Better questions

But you are not off the hook. The fact that Millennial workers may not need special treatment, doesn’t mean that your current methods for getting people to join, stay and perform are working well. If you are having any problems with people, chances are your talent processes might be distressingly outmoded in the eyes of all generations of employees and potential employees.

You need answers, but let’s start with exploring the questions you might want to ask. The following questions, offered for your inspiration, cover similar ground. However, they frame the situation in different ways. Which one resonates best with your environment?

1. Does your organization offer the basics of what all people are looking for in a job or career?

These basics might include work:

  • in a meaningful role
  • for a well-regarded company
  • for fair pay and treatment
  • where there are opportunities to succeed and grow
  • alongside peers and managers with whom they enjoy trusting, respectful relationships

Everyone wants these conditions and if they find them, they will stay longer…they will give their best. And they will never want to settle for less.

A top recruiting consultancy I know of advises companies that have undesirable or fear-based corporate cultures to avoid hiring anyone who has worked at a company with a strong positive culture, featuring the characteristics in the above list. Even high performing individuals will wilt under the weight of a dysfunctional culture when they have previously been accustomed to a supportive environment. And they will find a way to leave fast, no matter what their age.

Companies who work to provide a positive performance-enabling environment with effective leadership will win Millennials, Gen X-ers, and Baby Boomers alike.

2. Do your leaders’ skills and people practices reflect the science of human motivation?

Has it been traditional at your organization to expect workers to adapt to insensitive hiring practices, rigid H.R. policies, dehumanizing performance management processes, or dealing with a jerk of a boss?

In this case, besmirching the personalities of Millennials who don’t want to play ball is akin to blaming the victim. And well, there will be a piper to pay for that. The resulting lost productivity, employee turnover, low engagement…all cost money. Better to spend that money on improving skills and practices. Look into what has been long known by psychology, and more recently by neuroscience, about what brings out the best in people.

And there are many other lenses that can be applied. You might make sure you are clear on what the people problems are before searching for solutions. Or you might consider your organization’s strategies and determine the key people skills and process gaps between what you have now and what you need to drive your organization’s success in the future. Whichever door you go through, it’s good to have that door to frame your challenge.

Finding the common ground

Whatever questions you use as a starting point to address your specific issues for attracting, leading, developing, and retaining the talent you need, ground yourself in real science and focus on what energizes all humans to function optimally. When it comes to millennials, they don’t need unique attention and special treatment compared to other generations. When it comes to hiring and inspiring the best from your entire workforce, they ALL need special treatment.

Diane Bock is a senior consultant for DDI’s Leadership Solutions Group and is passionate about helping organizations drive business results through people.

Posted: 26 Jul, 2016,

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