Difficulty managing ‘troublesome’ millennials?’ You can hire a consultant or become your own ‘expert’

Posted on Written by Jerald F. Robinson

Jerald F. RobinsonHave you ever started a project and then had events pull you in a different direction? That has been my experience this month.

My management column in May dealt with the political campaigns and what readers might learn as managers from both sides of the aisle. My wife cautioned that I would get hate mail from both ends of the political spectrum, although I thought I had been evenhanded. On the contrary, most of the mail concentrated on the followers of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and what caused them to believe “so differently.”

Then I was reading the June issue of Soundings Trade Only and came across a splendid explanation of the current labor market by Soundings associate editor Reagan Haynes. The major issue is “worker shortages,” as she explains point by point in the article. Why not stop here and read/reread her report on pages 22-25 in the June issue. Cut it out and use it for an in-house workshop for all managers.

Then the May Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data was issued (in June), showing unemployment officially down, but the number of new jobs created/filled down significantly. Likely employers are not hiring when they cannot find a good match of qualified workers. So is there any relationship between these items? I believe so. Read on.

Nevertheless, to help those who commented on May’s article, as well as add to the “enlightenment” of managers, let’s look closely at that population segment known as the “millennials.”

Bear in mind that each “person” is a product of the environment in which they develop from early childhood to age 20/25. Some variables that likely are shaping people in this age category today may be: ethnic background; both parents at home; mother staying home with younger children; income level of parents; income level of people they often associate with; perceived quality of schooling to date; perceived opportunity for advancement in life; perception of personal “success” during the presidencies of Bush and Obama; rural, suburban or urban dweller; college graduate or likely to become one; major field of college study; state/region of residence; current personal income level, if employed; experience on first job; current experience on latest job, etc.

You already have experienced multiple generations in your workforce; the greatest differences likely now come with changes in work arrangements and policies. It is possible for intergenerational conflict at the shop floor level. You have probably noticed the “candid discussions” among people of different generations. However, the generation often perceived as most “troublesome for managers” is composed of folks born in the 1980s and 1990s — the children of the Generation X parents. As one generation drops off the age distribution chart, a new one arrives. Not unexpectedly, this “millennial” generation has sparked a new category of workplace “experts” — intergenerational consultants or millennial consultants. The Source Global Research firm tracks the use of consultants and estimates that business firms spent $60 million to 70 million on these intergenerational consultants in 2015. Many of these people are only self-anointed experts, but they are in demand from frustrated managers who face challenges in motivating new entrants and minimizing conflict across generational groups. Why not become your own in-house expert, or even an industry expert?

So where to start? Some basic research findings should be at the foundation of your action plans.

The executive team should have a vision of the company as one that is welcoming to new ideas, new people — a different approach to diversity? This is not as simple as it sounds, however. (Company policy changes may be slow or ­— with a new leader — fast.)

Millennials do not like or respect hierarchical organizations. (Oops! Most organizations are hierarchical.) This can be traced back to challenges to school rules from the 1990s to today. Students want grievance procedures in public schools and participation in decision-making at university board of regents meetings.

This generation will not “work till you drop.” They do not live to work; they work to live. What are some implications of these findings? Managers have often come to expect their workers to finish a job, even if it extends beyond the stated work hours. You need extra staff for a special project or to work on a weekend (not a typical workday). What would you expect from the typical millennial?

Using overtime or opportunity to receive special compensation for extra efforts rarely works. However, millennials crave extra time off. Other generations seeking added compensation and millennials seeking time off suggests that a system of alternative rewards may be useful. Your human resources staff can offer ideas; yes, they may not fit into the ways the company has always worked.

Millennials expect work to be meaningful. Would they find that to be the case in your work area? Twelve recent college graduates in business who work in my geographic area report that they anticipated challenging assignments, only to find they were given “grunt” work. Managers might respond that they wanted to start the new entrants easy and build up the work once they proved themselves. I guess it depends on how long this buildup takes and what communication was given to the new entrant about expectations. Personally, I have found many instances in which employees feel greatly underemployed. Consider checking to see whether this is true among your employees.

Millennials want to excel and, to do so, crave feedback. They believe the old cliché, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” Getting no feedback causes a lack of loyalty and commitment. Annual performance appraisals are frowned upon and do not provide the motivational impact expected by managers of a different generation.

Surprisingly, they hate email and voice mail. (These are old technologies.) Instant messaging of different varieties is more respected. What is Snapchat? What is Twitter (think Donald Trump)? Bottom line — do not waste time; get the communications accelerated.

Statistical goals (use of numbers at all) usually will turn off a millennial; this person normally would rather get the message by means of a story showing various implications from someone they respect. What good will these efforts make?

Society matters. In the 1970s the concept of social responsibility of business began its development as an academic discipline in business schools. Graduates of any business program have become acquainted with the concept; non-business students may have taken similar classes in philosophy. It has expanded into consumer affairs programs. Essentially, the company may be seen as an enemy if it promotes/empowers behaviors that may be viewed as anti-consumer or unethical.

One example I have encountered with a millennial relates to engine repair. A technician spent 2.5 hours reworking some engine malfunction; however, it seems the repair shop billed the customer for five hours (the official book charge.) The employee complained, and bureaucratic pressure was applied to stand back; employee tells customer; customer complains to repair shop; repair shop dismisses the technician; other employees walk out and the repair shop suffers in more than one way. Employees will become monitors of social responsibility within the company where they work. Are you ready for that? What might you do to ensure there are no allegations of unethical behavior?

This listing could go on and on. But hopefully the points are heard and might be acted on. Do you want to become the consultant for your company? I will be happy to offer other suggestions — just drop me a note.

Two final observations:

Some senior (in years) managers love to tell stories of the “old days” and can be excellent mentors for this youngest cohort of workers. Twenty-five years ago a number of books were written about “management by storytelling.” Maybe there is a need for new editions. Your “seniors” can hold lunch sessions with other managers to share some stories and help the younger managers understand that skill.

For a humorous presentation about the many expectations of millennials, find the June 1, 2016, issue of Fortune magazine. Go to page 96 and read the always on-target page by Stanley Bing. You will look for his page now in every issue — same place — with different topics each time.

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail: JFR@vt.edu.

This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue.

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