HR Insights

Are Your Managers Prepared for the Seismic Shift in the Workplace?

Generations at Work

As I paced back and forth, reviewing one last time what I wanted to say for my closing keynote,“The Hidden Gift Your Gen Y Employees Are Offering You,” my hotel room began to shake.

At first I thought it was a train. Later, I discovered it was a 5.0 earthquake that cleared the Ottawa conference center.

It was also the perfect metaphor about the seismic shift shaking the world of work. And it’s just the beginning.

On the flight home, I reflected on the perfection of this seismic event occurring during a conference titled “How to Attract, Retain, and Engage Generation Y” hosted by Marketing Breakthroughs, an Ottawa, Ontario-based marketing firm.

It was fitting, in part, because of the looming labor shortage facing Canada. According to Steve Klein, CEO of Marketing Breakthroughs, for every two Boomers that will retire, only one Gen Y employee will be available to take their place.

It’s Far More Than Just The Looming Labor Shortage

It’s not just that employers will soon have their recruiting world rocked by a growing labor shortage. It’s also the fact that managers are already having their world rocked by their Gen Y or Millennial employees. More specifically, they’re discovering that “old school” management practices and mediocre people skills no longer cut it, if you’re serious about attracting, retaining, and engaging Gen Y employees.

Capturing the fact that “old school” approaches don’t work with this generation, Steve Klein commented about how Gen Y employees chafe under the “micromanaging Baby Boomer manager still using 20th Century management practices.”

His observation reminded me of two assessments made by Bruce Tulgan, author of Generational Shift: What We Saw At The Workplace Revolution:

  • “This is the most high-maintenance workforce in the history of the world.”
  • “Supervising employees now requires more time and skill.”

“What’s Up With Them?”

Over the last several years, I’ve seen the reality of Tulgan’s comments reflected in the laments and requests raised by managers in my seminars. Whenever I ask managers about specific challenges and scenarios they want us to address, I always hear some variation of the following:

  • “How do you motivate these younger workers?”
  • “My supervisors don’t know what to do with these kids. What’s worked in the past doesn’t work with them.”
  • “They don’t have a work ethic.”
  • “It’s all about them. How do you get them to care about their employer?”
  • “They don’t listen to feedback. They either think they know it all or they get all defensive.”

Regardless of how accurate you believe such perceptions are, the reality is many — if not most — managers find the approaches that seemed to work in the past (emphasis on the “seemed”) don’t work with their Millennials. They’re painfully aware that their skills related to coaching, giving feedback, and performance management are inadequate for the challenges they face with this generation. They’re also aware that the old “sink or swim” and “plug and play” model of onboarding and managing leads to massive turnover.

Although it’s frustrating for them, I believe their frustration is a good thing.

The Hidden Gift and the Wake Up Call

Here’s why I say that. It actually fits in with the topic of my keynote, which was based on the ERE.net article “The Hidden Gift Your Gen Y Employees Are Offering You.”

If you don’t want to read the full article, here are the key takeaways:

  1. Basically, Gen Y employees want what other employees want. Generational differences do exist in terms of the specifics of what’s important and their relative importance. However, employees of ALL generations want what Gen Y employees demand — work that has meaning.

• The ability to learn and grow professionally on the job.

• The belief that their employer is doing good in the world.

• The ability to make a difference at work.

• Being treated with respect.

• Getting feedback not just when you do something wrong, but when you do something really well.

• Getting feedback in a respectful way, rather than being verbally bludgeoned or treated like a child.

• Feeling like their boss cares about them as a person.

2. If they’re unhappy, Gen Y employees are much more likely to leave. With older workers, they’re more likely to quit emotionally and intellectually, while their physical being remains to collect a pay check. If you have any doubts about this, consider Gallup’s research revealing that 74 percent of employees are not highly engaged — i.e. they’re just doing time.

3. Thus, your Generation Y or Millennial employees are like the “canary in the coal mine” with regard to your management practices and organizational climate. They are your early warning sign. They’re the first to let you know if you are doing things that cause disengagement for ALL of your employees. If you’re willing to listen, you can gain invaluable information that can help you improve your ability to attract, retain, and engage talent from ALL generations.

The Seismic Shift in Leadership and Management Skills

As Millennials comprise an increasingly larger percentage of the workforce, managers at all levels will need to upgrade and refine their skills, both at the macro leadership level and at the micro, conversational level.

Employers who don’t invest in these skills sets will continue to feel the frustrations and costs of not knowing how to attract, retain, and engage this generation. They will continue to pay the price, in the following currency:

  • High turnover and all the costs associated with that.
  • Lack of initiative and “go the extra mile” behavior, something no employer can afford in a “do more with less” work world.
  • Lack of innovation because of an inability to encourage and channel the creative, “I’ve got a cool idea!” energy of youth.
  • Lost productivity.
  • Damage to the brand due to indifferent and socially inept customer service.

Employers who don’t invest in upgrading to 21st Century management practices and skills will be left behind.

So What DOES Work?

This list is not meant as an exhaustive list. To make it manageable, I pulled out nine of what I see as the 20 most critical areas managers need to upgrade. These seven were chosen both because of the impact they can have on employee engagement and performance, and because of how often they’re lacking.

This list is based on a synthesis of:

  • Interviews with Millennial employees.
  • Noticing common themes from employee focus groups about critical “Manager-Employee Moments of Truth” that destroy motivation and engagement.
  • Common “complaint themes” raised by managers at seminars about their managers.
  • Common skill deficits among managers I’ve worked with in seminars and coaching—such as how to give constructive feedback effectively.
  • Thought leadership on what capabilities companies need in today’s economy and how they translate into leadership practices.

As you read the list, notice that while some might be especially important for engaging Gen Y employees, they are also important if you want to bring out the best in ALL employees. Also, while these practices have always been critical, they are even more critical if you want your business to thrive in a world that requires:

  • Organizational agility
  • Organizational resilience
  • Innovation
  • Maximum productivity per employee
  • Brand-building, buzz-generating customer service
  • The ability to attract and retain the “A Players” in any field

Nine 21st Century Leadership Practice: How Do You Rate?

For each practice, give yourself a grade from A to F, first for skill level and then for how often you implement them.

  1. Do you communicate through stories how your company is making a difference, both as a good citizen and providing value to your customers, clients, or patients?
  2. Do you explain, starting on Day One, how each employee’s job contributes to the value your company provides and its success? Do you keep this connection alive in your coaching conversations through the use of stories?
  3. Are you quick to recognize when employees do things well and go the extra mile, rather than take these things for granted?
  4. Do you actively engage your employees in problem-solving and idea-generation when facing a challenge or potential opportunity?
  5. Is asking your direct reports for their ideas on improving processes, products, and service delivery a regular part of your conversations?
  6. Do you make feedback—both positive and corrective—just a regular part of life, so it’s seen as just a normal, and useful, part of professional development?
  7. Do you REALLY know how to give “constructive” feedback so it’s truly constructive? My experience is that most people don’t. Even though I teach it, I still have to continually work on i
  8. Do you demonstrate an active interest in your employees’ professional development and look for opportunities they can engage in stretch assignments and action learning?
  9. Do you ask your employees for feedback on your managerial style and practices, thereby demonstrating respect and modeling an openness to feedback and professional development?

Now What?

If you’re serious about your helping your company adapt to the demands of today’s marketplace, don’t just read this article and go back to business as usual. Unless you’re perfect, you spotted practices that either you don’t have the skills to execute, or you have the skills, but haven’t been engaging in them.

For those items you scored yourself low both in ability and execution, learn the skills that will help you execute those practices.

For those practices you believe you have the skills for, but scored yourself low in execution, that speaks to a need to discover how to make them a regular practice, like reading your email.

While both actions take time, think about how you would prefer to spend your time.

Would you like to spend your time dealing with continually hiring and training employees due to high turnover, putting out fires, babysitting, and feeling frustrated, or, becoming the kind of manager that enjoys a high performing, engaged team that makes them feel proud?

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 60 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.
  • Alan Miles

    Fabulous article, David – and I’d like to cross-reference my readers to your list of Nine 21st Century Leadership Practices.  What we really need is a simple methodology to make it easy for managers to put these principles into everyday use – so they become just as much of a habit as your first cup of coffee in the morning.  I’m exploring this on my recently-launched blog http:www.hroomph.com/blog – I’d love you to take a look.