November 19, 2012
I have some bad news for young people entering the workforce: You're all a bunch of weenies, and we don't like you.
LOL! JUST KIDDING!
No, seriously, millennials are great, but we do need to have a talk. So sit down with Old Man Huppke and let me address a generational problem that's rearing its head — big time — in workplaces across the country.
First off, I'm talking about those of you born between 1982 and 1999. It's the group that followed Generation X, which is the group that followed the baby boomers.
Every generation has its unique characteristics, of course. Gen Xers are largely the product of two-income households and tend to be independent and self-sufficient. Boomers prefer to work collaboratively and are known to enjoy dreadful folk music.
But the millennials, along with entering the workforce with unrealistic confidence and expectations, seem to have a problem with personal interaction and conflict resolution.
"One of the primary reasons in this past year or two that I've been called in to coach executives or companies around generational differences is to help them leverage the skills and talents of millennials," said Linda Gravett, a psychologist and senior partner with the Cincinnati-based human resources consulting firm Gravett & Associates. "Many of them have trouble handling conflicts and don't have confrontational skills or seem able to deal with conflicts in a straightforward way."
Gravett said that in a recent focus group with 10 millennials, the subjects said they prefer to text someone they're having a problem with rather than speak by phone or face to face.
"I asked them why they won't just talk to someone over coffee or something," she said. "And they said, 'Oh, that's too personal.'"
Another millennial told Gravett that the boss had yelled at him. She asked whether the boss raised his voice. The millennial said, "No."
She asked whether the boss used profanity. The millennial said, "No."
"So I said, 'Explain to me what yelling at you means,' and the young man said, 'Well, he was really firm and he disagreed with me.' He took that as being yelled at."
Oh boy. If having someone disagree with you is akin to yelling, your work life is going to be deafening.
Cynthia Sims, associate professor of workforce education and development at Southern Illinois University, believes companies can best help millennials — and all staffers, for that matter — by treating generational issues as a matter of workplace diversity.
"What we're describing are dimensions of diversity," she said. "Folks don't see generations as a diversity issue. They look at race and gender, but there's more to it than that. There's age, education, communication style. These are all dimensions of diversity, and we need to have training that talks about them that way."
Companies often ignore generational differences, assuming people will just blend into a nice, smooth batter of productivity. But experts such as Sims and Gravett say it's critical that companies acknowledge that every age group brings its own quirks and advantages to the table.
"I'm not sure the millennials are problematic; I just think there are communication and expectation differences that groups need to talk about," Sims said. "We don't have a forum in the workplace to talk about those differences. There may be some skills that millennials don't have because they're so used to technology; they may not have the social skills that some of us have. But that's where boomers and Gen Xers can come in and help."
Gravett said millennials tend to relate well to baby boomers because they view them more as grandparents, whereas Gen Xers could be seen as hovering, lecturing parents. Companies would be wise to pair millennials with older employees for symbiotic mentoring.
"Boomers can learn how to text, and the millennials can learn to walk down the hall and sit next to someone and look them in the face," Gravett said. "If they start there, there doesn't seem to be so much of a gap between them."
So talk openly about the fact that your workforce is generationally diverse.
"The commonality would be, 'What's the mission of our company? What's the mission of our department? What are our customer needs?'" Gravett said. "Let's move toward that similar objective. But let's acknowledge that maybe we have to communicate around those objectives in different ways."
As with other workplace issues, we tend to clam up about generational issues. The key here is putting the fact that differences exist on the table and fostering some cross-generational understanding.
If millennials are struggling with overconfidence or an inability to handle confrontation, that's not a sweeping indictment of any individual or the group. It's just something that needs to be addressed.
And if we learn to address these things now, we'll be better prepared for the next generation, whatever it may be called and whatever weird issues it has.
That's all for this week from Old Man Huppke. Remember to keep that rock 'n' roll music of yours turned down. And stay off my damn lawn.
TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at firstname.lastname@example.org, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
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