Best of TLNT 2017: Your Millennials Are Your Canaries

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Mar 16, 2017

Editor’s Note: It’s an annual tradition for TLNT to count down the most popular posts of the previous 12 months. We’re reposting each of the top 30 articles through January 2nd. This is No. 10 of 2017. You can find the complete list here.


“Those millennials are so entitled.”
“Those millennials are so ‘all about me’.”
“Those millennials are so darn high maintenance. I don’t have time for all that babysitting.”
“Those millennials …I swear they think they should be a senior VP after one year on the job. What planet do they live on?”

If these are familiar laments in your organization, it might be time for a paradigm shift.

Instead of looking at your millennials as workplace divas or hothouse flowers, what would happen if you saw them as your “Employee Engagement Canary in the Coal Mine?”

A quick synopsis of the term in case you’re not familiar with it: Long ago, before sophisticated technology, coal miners would bring a canary down into the mine shaft as their early warning sign that carbon monoxide (CO) levels were getting dangerously high. If the canary keeled over, it was a good time to head to the surface. Because canaries are more sensitive to CO levels than humans, they showed the effects before the coal miners did. Thus, the canary’s increased sensitivity saved lives.

Your millennial employees are your Employee Engagement Canary in the Coal Mine for those things that lead all employees to become disengaged:

  • Impersonal non-servant leader managers who see their direct reports as simply tools or apps to achieve their goals, and show no interest in them as human beings, their well-being, or professional development aspirations.
  • Outdated, nonsensical policies that make it hard to do your work.
  • Lack of respect for an employee’s right to have a life outside of work.
  • Being kept out of the loop, so employees always feel like they are laboring in the dark.
  • A boss who only gives negative feedback, never praise or appreciation.
  • No clarity around how employees’ work matters, how it contributes to the organization’s mission, and how it makes the world a better place.
  • Few opportunities to make a difference; to do something that truly matters outside of one’s routine tasks.

“I quit, but I’ll still come to work and collect a paycheck”

While all employees want these things, many of those from older generations tolerate not having them, rather than complain or leave. Instead, they join the ranks of what the Gallup Organization calls ROAD Warriors—Retired on Active Duty.

These employees, who no longer care about their employer, doing a great job, or making a contribution, comprise 60% of the workforce, according to Gallup’s research.

These are the people who say: “I quit, but I’m still going to show up to collect a paycheck.”

The fact that 60% of employees in the average organization are just going through the motions is only half the problem. The other half is that because they don’t speak up or leave, their employer doesn’t realize “CO levels are rising.”

Thus, it’s easy for employers to go along blithely unaware of the huge price they are paying for ineffective management practices and organizational policies.

They don’t realize how much productivity, improved customer service quality, and concern for quality they are losing out on. Because older generation employees were born into a culture that accepted — and even expected — that work was not supposed to be rewarding, let alone pleasant, they are generally not as vocal or willing to leave as millennial employees.

Because most employees don’t speak up, it’s easy to mistakenly believe the following:

  • New employees don’t notice or don’t care about the sloppy, boring-as-watching-paint-dry orientation program and indifferent, sink-or-swim “welcome” they receive.
  • That conducting an employee survey and never reporting or doing anything with the results doesn’t have an effect on morale, respect, and trust.
  • That managers taking for granted employee effort, great work, and sacrifices doesn’t lead to employees becoming less and less interested in going the extra mile, doing great work, or making sacrifices.
  • That not asking employees for input over changes that directly affect their jobs is “just something they need to get over,” and that such attitudes don’t have serious consequences in terms of passive-aggressive resistance, let alone employee engagement.

Without feedback, it’s easy to think things are fine when they are not

When employees don’t speak up about the things that make it hard for them to perform at their best and about the things that cause them to care less and less, employers are left in the dark. Employers are left not realizing how much more productivity, how much better customer service, how much greater ability to attract talent they are missing out on.

When employees suck it up rather than speak up, employers are left in the dark about what’s keeping them from enjoying high levels of employee engagement and the benefits that brings.

But with millennial employees, employers don’t have to wonder.

Millennials are more than happy to let you know what you’re doing wrong. And that’s the hidden gift of this generation:

You don’t have to wonder if you are doing the things that prevent you from attracting, retaining, and engaging ALL generations of talent. Your millennials will let you know by speaking up…or by leaving.

Or to put it more bluntly

If you suck as an employer, your millennials will let you know.

They will let you know verbally, or by walking out the door.

So no matter how cheeky they might seem in their delivery, or how annoying you find their lack of loyalty, they are giving you valuable information.

Your millennials are giving you information that can be a game-changer if received with curiosity and humility.

It’s sort of like being told you have spinach in your teeth.

It’s not pleasant news, but it’s better than not knowing.

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