The generation game
In late December 2016, an interview with author and speaker Simon Sinek took the internet by storm. Sinek’s take on millennials in the workplace – a depiction of an entitled generation, spoiled by participation medals and parents who told them they were special – drew a mixed reaction, with some sharing his views and others criticising his sweeping generalisations.
Are millennials really that different? And how can managers balance the needs of an intergenerational team in the workplace?
According to Helen Tynan, head of people operations for EMEA at Google, the first step is to focus on individuals, not generations. “Generational research is interesting when looking at typical traits across a large population, but you can’t assume that every person in one generation will display all the general traits of that generation,” Tynan says.
Instead managers should focus on getting to know their teams and understanding what motivates each individual, she suggests.
Fiona Buckley, a work behaviourist and executive coach, agrees. She says that managers should be careful to avoid “tarring everyone with the same generational brush”.
“Fairness and reasonableness are hugely important when managing a multigenerational team, so as not to promote intergenerational clichés,” Buckley adds.
That said, managers should be aware of the things that typically drive millennials and understand what’s important to them when it comes to their career.
A 2017 millennial survey by professional services firm Deloitte points to young professionals being a more mobile workforce than previous generations, but still craving a level of stability. For example, almost seven out of 10 Irish millennials would opt for full-time permanent employment over freelance or consultative work. Deloitte’s report sums it up well, saying that millennials “value variety within the bounds of full-time stability”.
“A lot of the research on millennials suggests that they are looking for work that will make a difference, where they can feel connected to a cause or to the mission of a company,” Tynan says. “They seek frequent change, want to be learning and stretching continuously, and so are more open to moving around in their careers.”
Buckley believes that millennials want “career advancement fast, more travel opportunities, more variety, more flexibility and more autonomy”.
Millennials, Buckley says, are used to having everything at the touch of a button, “which can lead to an impatience in the workplace”. Similarly, she says that millennials want “career advancement sooner rather than later and their staying power in companies reduces accordingly if they don’t get what they want career-wise”.
Work-life balance is also very important for today’s young professionals. According to Buckley, millennials are less willing than previous generations to work long hours. “However, this does not mean they are not willing to work hard, which is a common stereotype,” she says.
Tynan thinks that millennials are as hardworking as every other generation. “They are sometimes typified as being lazy or self-absorbed; that is certainly not our experience,” she says.
While millennials might differ from other generations in some ways, there’s a lot of common ground too. For example, everyone – regardless of age – wants a good manager, Tynan says. “Regardless of how great your company is, your experience of working for that company will come down to what you think of your manager,” she says.
A bad experience with a manager can be the difference between staying in a role and leaving. “One in two people leave their organisations due to their boss and, again, this is irrespective of generation,” Buckley says.
Some companies are putting the different experiences of various workplace generations to use, with millennials being asked to “mentor” their bosses.
“This concept of reverse mentoring can definitely work if its governed and communicated in the right way,” Buckley explains, adding that both sides need to have clear expectations.
Social media is one area where she has seen reverse mentoring prove useful. “When done right it can bridge the gaps between generations,” she says.
Google is one of a number of companies that has tested out the idea of reverse mentoring.
“We invited a sample of millennials from one large business unit to come and talk to the leadership team of that business, who were largely generation x-ers,” Tynan explains.
The millennial Googlers shared their experiences of working in the business unit and talked more broadly about what motivated them and so on. Next, the leaders posed some questions and shared their perspective.
“The millennials felt valued that their leaders wanted to understand their perspective and inputs,” Tynan says. “And the leaders felt they had gained real insight into a different generation and had ideas about what they might want to change in the way they ran their business.”
Millennials, in Tynan’s experience, keep managers on their toes.
“They’re not afraid to ask questions or offer their opinions,” she says. “This is why they’re great. They challenge the status quo and bring their fresh perspectives.”