Questioning Stereotypes on Millennials

We’ve been told many things about millennials as a way of identifying them as a group and being able to understand how they differ from those who were the generation that came before. it’s been very tempting at times for people to hear the suggestions about what defines millennials and to then look for clues to back up those beliefs.

So, we’ve been told that millennials are the laziest, flakiest, neediest and most self-absorbed generation that has ever lived. It’s said that they’re almost impossible to employ because they are so desperate for praise for even the slightest of effort, jump ship at the drop of a hat without developing any sense of loyalty or commitment and that they have been so pampered that they can’t take criticism.

It’s a truism that any attempt to take a whole ‘category of people’ and to generalise them in to a stereotypical definition and place them in a box is doomed to failure. But, it’s useful when we get actual data to enhance our understanding of what really goes on in the minds of any pre-defined group.

This really matters when we consider that over half of the world’s current population is under the age of 25. Incidentally, there are many definitions of what is a millennial, but the generally accepted textbook definition of a millennial is a person born between the years of 1982 and 2004. So, today our Secondary Schools, colleges and increasingly our working places contain sizable populations of these people. It’s often suggested that many of the problems for this generation stem from the fact that they were brought up in a climate of the ‘self-esteem’ approaches to child-rearing – a set of beliefs that criticism and negativity should never be used with children, that everything must build their self esteem.

So, it’s useful when there’s real research that seeks to determine whether/ how much truth there is in the stereotypes. The following video and article clearly demonstrate that (at least in the USA) the evidence is weak at best. For example, the interesting term ‘work martyrs’ (otherwise workaholics) applies more to millennials than to any other generation. These are the infamous American workforce members who don’t use all their vacation allowance.

World Economic Forum – Positive Narrative For the Global Community

The article also carries some other interesting data. It’s good to see that such a high proportion of millennials hold a positive perspective on the future. It would be easy to believe that, bombarded with negative media reporting, they would be beaten down to believe they lived in a world that was only going to get worse, certainly not better. They are, in fact a generation of optimists.

Their attitudes towards refugees in their countries or neighbourhoods shows that there is a caring and compassionate leaning that belies the reputation for self indulgence and self interest. The report and the survey don’t seem to touch upon why the levels of civic engagement by these people were so low in UK Brexit referendum or the American election. However, it does suggest that if they were more politically active and voting, their influence would lead to very different outcomes.

One belief of my own does seem to be borne out by the survey – these young people are more acutely in to money than those who went before. ironically, we know from other research that, at least until now circumstances have meant that they don’t make money in the ways of previous generations. It’s said that they are the first generation since the industrial revolution to make less in real terms at the same age than their own parents did. I think this highlights the need for leaders in organisations to engage these younger employees, to help them feel a greater sense of purpose, belonging and contribution to their organisations. However, we may still have to accept they’re more likely to gripe about the money! maybe we and they just have to live with that fact.

Whilst there’s encouragement in this video, the article and the research, I do believe that we need to paying more attention to changing the ways we educate and the ways we lead to get the best from these young people.

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Beyond Performance Reviews

If you had to create a system from scratch that would contribute to having higher levels of work engagement among employees, would you create a conventional, traditional performance management/ review system as exists currently in most organisations? My guess is that few of us would choose to do that, at least without skepticism and a certain degree of sadness that we wished we had something better. Why - because we know of enough reasons why conventional performance review systems don't contribute to improved or increased engagement and more often, we know that they can be highly demotivational for a significant proportion of our team members.

Who would willingly choose to engage in a process that is ostensibly intended to improve performance, to drive up standards across an organisation and keep 'all the fishes' swimming in a common direction, where the evidence actually suggests that the process demotivates many and leaves others ambivalent about the process, their longer term career and life aspirations and the contribution they make to the organisation?

In knowledge-based organisations and professional fields the process of finding, recruiting and integrating new people is an enormously expensive one. It doesn't necessarily appear as a defined line in budgets, so many of these costs are concealed and hidden in other working costs. In addition, turnover of people, the inevitable times when there are gaps when a position is left vacant because a suitable person can't be identified all act as further hidden costs. It's even worse than that, though. Finding people who are a perfect fit is almost impossible. So, people are taken in to the organisation and considerable time and effort goes in to helping them to fit the roles for which the organisation needs them. In those circumstances to either lose the person or (maybe worse), to have the person stay but never really fulfil their potential is a massive cost. When it happens too often, you have an underperforming organisation that can never really be all that was dreamed or envisaged.

So, we have to be open to all ideas and possibilities about how to lead knowledge workers effectively, in ways that are respectful and respected. To lead people in ways that enhance people's potential contribution, make them feel certain that they're in a place where their personal and organisational goals can be aligned and to see that their future dreams can often be achieved in some form in the organisation (instead of believing that they must go elsewhere).

Ironically, i suspect the lack of meaningful discussion with employees about the future - their futures - is one of the reasons that so many reduce their organisational existence down to just a discussion about money. If i believe the organisation isn't interested in me and the future i dream of for me, then i might as well at least get as much money from the organisation as i can for the limited period that I'm going to stay.

As Russ Laraway highlights in the video above, and in this Fast Company article the biggest shortcoming of performance management reviews (when they happen and even when they're done well) is that they are inherently backward looking. Worse, to my mind, is that they don't look at the past from the perspective of what was important to the individual, but according to a checklist of tasks or deliverables that the organisation wanted from the individual. Laraway acknowledges that the past is an important part of career discussions, but from the context of the person's whole past and especially those aspects of the past that hold clues to who the individual is and their priorities today.

I wrote yesterday about the millennials and how they are different - requiring different approaches from us in the workplace. This is a classic example. As highlighted in the video shared yesterday, they want more attention to be made to them as people. Attention to their aspirations and dreams is something they want, so this approach makes sense and will strike a chord.

We live with a new reality. Workplaces have changed in the last 20 years or so. Leaders cannot be making assumptions that because they issue an order or instruction or declare that something is to be done in a particular way (or even the statement of a vision or mission) that it will be blindly followed, obeyed or done as stated. This isn't to say that millennial employees are willfully disobedient. It's more that they see the workplace and a job as something more transactional. In those circumstances, respecting the individual has dreams, taking time to understand them, their past and those dreams for the future fits right in with the sort of attention they seek in return for their professional contribution.

When Smart People Speak ……

Simon Sinek first crossed my radar a couple of years ago with an excellent and very popular TED talk. Since then i've followed his work with a lot of interest, because i feel he's one really smart guy and we should be taking note of the things he says.

So, I was delighted when a friend shared this video of an interview he gave recently. In it, i believe he sums up so well some critical aspects of the world we're living in today, and particularly the life experiences of so many 'millennials'.

The video has struck such a chord with so many, that Sinek has produced a further short video in which he elaborates a little more about how he came to take an interest in these issues. He also responds to some of the feedback that came his way after the initial interview.

Sinek’s work has predominantly been about leadership and organisations. As he points out, how to manage and lead millennials is now a significant issue in leadership. It does no good to simply condemn how they are, to criticize or to belittle. Millennials, as much as any generation before them are a product of the culture and environment they’ve grown up in.

I believe this is of way more than mere curious interest to us as educators. Firstly, there’s now a fair proportion of the teachers in our schools who are millennials. We need to understand how to lead them, motivate them, keep them and ensure that they are engaged and passionately committed to their work.

Secondly, I was especially struck by Sinek’s comment about how leaders cannot shrug off their responsibility to deal with the challenges associated with millennials. It’s no good to simply blame parents, earlier educators or the millennials themselves. So, we have to understand that if lack of quality parenting, or over-protective cossetting parenting is still influencing the lives of the children in our schools, then we have to figure out how to work with them. We need to help them to develop the skills pertaining to relationships, empathy for others, determining and recognising the importance of life meaning and purpose. Sinek’s arguments are valid, important and we need to be discussing our responses in schools.

Finally, here, I share the link to Simon Sinek’s website that carries more articles, resources and links to his other work:
Simon Sinek – Start With Why