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The Millennial Question

Recently, I was a speaker at a panel discussion organized by a premier B-School. The moderator of the panel discussion asked me how my organization is dealing with the challenge of managing millennials. Pat came my response, “Do we need to manage millennials? Do we see the presence of millennials in our organizations as a challenge?” The moderator clearly didn’t anticipate this response and was visibly off-track for a few minutes before gaining the momentum back.

Well, my intention was not to derail the momentum and flow of the discussion. My objective was to drive home an important point about millennials. Many HR leaders and practitioners are harbouring the misconception that millennials are a problem and hence they need to be managed. This misconception has led to many less than impactful programs and initiatives in organizations to deal with this so-called problem or challenge. What a sheer waste of money, men and material!!

Let me try and answer the two questions that I had asked the moderator of the aforesaid panel discussion. My first question was: “Do we need to manage millennials?” The response to this question by Business or HR leaders in an organization will reflect the mindset of that organization when it comes to millennials.

Managing is equal to damaging.
In my view, managing millennials is the last thing we should do. Milleninials are to be nurtured. They are to be inspired to aspire for more. They need to be challenged enough so that the best will come out of them. If we start managing and controlling them, we shall start damaging their potential and killing their creativity.

My second question to the moderator was: “Do we see the presence of millennials in our organizations as a challenge?” Well, this question requires a little deeper analysis.

Challenge versus Opportunity
Why do organizations view Gen-Y in the workforce as a challenge in the first place? It is because of various stereotypes and prejudices that leaders have about this generation. Here are a few examples of these stereotypes:

"Millennials have a short attention span."
“Millennials are a spoiled lot.”
“They have very poor work ethics.“
“They have scant respect for authority”
“They are too self-centered.”
“They are lazy. They are more interested in fun and less interested in work”
“Millennials are not loyal to their organization and they lack commitment.”

These perceptions form the core of our mindset towards Gen-Y. However, these perceptions are not necessarily true. Let’s take the example of one of the stereotypes:“Millennials have scant respect for authority”. Well, in reality, millennials look for logic and reasoning in everything. They question decision, ask for explanation and don’t accept anything blindly. Often this attitude, instead of being viewed as a positive quality, is viewed as a negative one. At the workplace, the Gen-X Manager assumes that he/she should be respected by employees. But the Gen-Y employee believes that the manager must earn respect and not demand it. And thus, the so-called generational challenge is born out of this difference between ‘assumptions’ and ‘beliefs’.

Baby Boomer and Gen-X leaders must change the lens through which they look at millennials. Or else, they would never stop seeing Gen-Y’s presence in the workforce as a challenge.

From Challenge to Opportunity: A Paradigm Shift
How do we stop seeing Gen-Y as a challenge and start seeing their presence as an opportunity for our organizations? Well, this is possible, only if we make an attempt to understand the tastes, preferences, motivators and strengths of this generation. In other words, we need a shift in our mindset.

What can Business and HR leaders do to drive this shift? Well, organizations can do three things to drive this:

1. Build the Right Culture
Millennials are driven by a values-based culture. These values are transparency, openness, meaning and purpose in work and so on. Employers need to build a culture that fosters openness and transparency. Moreover, millennials prefer an inclusive style of management, dislike slowness, and want immediate feedback. They tend to have less respect for rank and more respect for ability and accomplishment. They prefer a positive work climate, flexibility and the opportunity to learn and grow. My two cents would be: “make transparency part of your corporate values”. Not only should you articulate this value but also demonstrate it every time through leadership action. Also, build policies around these values.

If we go back in history, you will find that baby boomers lived just to work and that Gen-X worked and worked hard to live decently. But the radical shift happened with the advent of Millennials in the workforce. Millennials believe in ‘working hard’ and ‘playing hard’. Keeping pace with this shift, leaders need to create a work environment which provides challenging roles and at the same time opportunities to pursue one’s passion or interests.

2. Engage Differently
Organizations are spending millions of dollars on engagement initiatives targeting millennials at the workplace. However, are these engagement efforts yielding the desired results? One thing is clear - that conventional engagement initiatives like coffee talks and town halls are not effective any more with Gen-Y. Organizations need to engage with Gen-Y differently. Let’s look at an example of an engagement initiative with a difference. There is an organization in India which gets the millennials to sign up for one of its social impact programs on Day One (when they join). The company is using this as a great retention strategy. Millennials are known to be passionate about social causes.

Another engagement strategy is to provide appropriate social media platforms and tools to the young workforce. This would enable them to build their own interest groups and reach out to others in the organization who have similar interests. This not only facilitates engagement but also fosters collaboration among employees. Millennials will be less keen on sitting in lengthy class room sessions. Rather, they would be interested in having access to resources through which they can learn on their own or learn through collaboration with co-workers. Organizations must encourage social learning and informal learning by setting up communities of practice.

3. Unlock Potential
Gen-Y are known to be tech-savvy, good at multi-tasking, creative, innovative, active, agile, energetic and always on. How do we unlock and harness their potential? Well, organizations can do a few things to make this a reality.

Though communication technology, organizations can enable Gen-Y to co-create and build organizational knowledge. Organizations can implement reverse mentoring in right earnest. In reverse mentoring, a Gen Y employee plays mentor and a senior executive in the organization plays mentee. The biggest advantage of reverse mentoring is that it helps in closing the knowledge gap between the two generations. For example, Gen X learn about social media from the millennials and the latter learn business acumen and industry practices from the senior executives.

Enable millenials to invent and innovate by providing them the systems, tools and the eco-system. For example, you can implement a company-wide Idea Management Tool which will allow employees to conceptualize, incubate and implement an innovative idea. Announce an innovation contest and encourage millennials to participate and contribute ideas. However, once an idea is selected, then leaders in the organization must demonstrate sincerity and sense of purpose by providing sponsorship.

Generation Y could be different from its previous generations. Well, we were different too when we entered the workforce for the first time. But treating this difference as a challenge is sheer stupidity. On the other hand, an inclusive leadership team, with the right attitude and maturity, can not only welcome Gen Y into its eco-system but also unleash their potential to strengthen the organizational fabric. We all remember the words of Ernest Agyemang Yeboah,“In relay racing, there comes a great disappointment when those who are supposed to receive the baton to get to the finishing line do not get it from those who are supposed to hand off the baton.” The million dollar question is: Are we ready to hand-off the baton?

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