The More Things Change…
by Ken Chapman, Ph.D.
Listen to an audio version of this article by clicking here:
In Part One of The More Things Change, the focus was on what all human beings share in common. While generational differences do exist, people continue to be people. All human beings share a need to be valued, to make sense of the world around them, and to discover a sense of purpose. The article ended with a recommended “place to begin” in bridging the gap between generations. Create a company culture where Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z give your company high marks in response to the following questions:
1. Are you treated with dignity and respect by everyone you encounter during the workday (No matter their position, department, shift, or generation)?
2. Are you given the resources to make a contribution to your company that gives meaning to your life?
3. Do you receive recognition for work which is well done?
Now, in Part Two, we turn our attention to the real fact-based differences between Boomers and just about everybody else in the workplace. As we begin, I feel the need to offer a cautionary note. Generational differences are not about “right and wrong,” though it is certainly true that every generation stumbles forward at times; and every generation has its share of bad actors; those who do not care about the best interest of the common good.
Generational differences almost always arise from where a generation “begins.” Family of origin, culture, and even technology play a decisive role in human perception and behavior. Boomers came of age in a world where a two-parent home with siblings was the norm. Boomers came of age in a “connected” world of extended family and institutions with a shared mission. And, while Boomers were the first generation to grow up with television, their world was not defined by technology that intruded on every aspect of life and learning.
By contrast, Millennials and Gen Zs are the most disconnected generations in human history. You will have to adjust the current definition of “connected” to understand what is meant here. Certainly, Millennials and Gen Zs are the most connected if we’re talking about social media. Millennials and Gen Zs are often frustrated and anxious when separated from their tablet or smartphone. We now know this virtual world of social media does little to create human connection that facilitates a sense of being valued, making sense of the world and/or finding purpose. In fact, cyber-bullying and being “defriended” in the online environment are contributing to a sense of isolation and loneliness among Millennials and Gen Zs.
More often than not Millennials and Gen Zs have not known the support of a two-parent family. The 2020 census tells us only one in five people grew up in a setting with two parents present and engaged. Most children came of age in the home of a single parent who was working multiple jobs and had little energy left at the end of the day for the highly demanding task of parenting. Their parent may well have done all that they could, given the limitations of time and emotional energy. But every child, especially during their developmental years, needs to experience being the most important person in the world to at least one adult. And the child measures that “importance” in terms of time invested in listening, validating, and consoling. Just like parenting, growing up is hard work.
In addition, significantly fewer Millennials and Gen Zs participated in organized sports, school clubs, and other extra-curricular activities where human connections are often formed. Throughout human history, men and women have concluded that humanity exists within some form of “sacred order” which provides human connection and purpose. The experience of Millennials and Gen Zs is an exception. Such traditions have not been a part of their experience. What is important about this, within the context of this article, is that faith traditions, along with the other traditional avenues for forming human connection, are not part of the lived experience of Millennials and Gen Zs.
Boomers grew up in a world where family, public schools, organized faith traditions, and the neighborhood conveyed a consistent message. For example, it is just smart to treat others with the same consideration you want for yourself. These institutions partnered to help the young develop good judgment and life skills. This has not been the experience of many Millennials and Gen Zs.
Making Sense Out of Things
A person (or generation) can only know the world through the world they have known. When Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Zs arrive at work on Monday morning, very different roads brought them to the common ground of a shared workplace. Their “lived experiences” are different. The multiple opportunities for human connection which Boomers took for granted, is a need yet to be met for many of the newest generations in the workplace. This means managers, supervisors, H.R. professionals, and yes, Boomer coworkers, must see the difference between a Boomer and a Millennial and Gen Z as an opportunity, not a liability.
Just like the human beings who came before them, the newest generations in the workplace, are looking for human connection. The successful organization of the future will stop complaining about generational differences, and instead, find new ways to meet this basic need. Building on the three strategies listed in the first article, what follows are strategies for meeting this need, as it presents itself, in Millennials and Gen Zs.
For most, if not for all of the post-World-War II era, onboarding new employees has been a transactional process. And while the word transactional has taken on a negative meaning today, this was not the case for much of the last half the twentieth century. Companies who onboarded people transactionally did so for the most practical of reasons: It worked. Veterans and Boomers may not have always liked the institutional feel of being herded through an information dump, but they tolerated it with little or no push-back.
Millennials and Gen Zs, on the other hand, are far less tolerant of cool, arguably cold, transactional experiences. And they are quick to let you know when they have concluded you are treating them like all the other relationships in which no one cared about “connecting” with them. They leave. The organization that makes the effort to “connect” will find Millennials and Gen Zs are as capable and committed as the best of their older peers.
Make The Connection
The effort to connect should start at the top and on the first day. For example, the G.M. should meet with every new employee team (preferably in groups no larger than ten to twelve). The G.M. should welcome everyone and talk briefly about their own history with the company. Then follow the following script (or one like it):
I believe you can build a good future for yourself here.
You’ll need to do three things:
- 1. Show up.
- 2. Earn the trust of the people you work with.
- 3. Make good decisions about your work.
If there is something you need let me or your supervisor know.
Then within a few days (no more than a week) the department manager and immediate supervisor must follow up with a message which reinforces the message from the G.M. and follow through! Take the time to listen, to teach, to encourage. Invest! Make a good faith effort to connect. Be mindful this effort alone will separate and elevate you and your organization in the life of a Millennial or Gen Z.
Mentor, Don’t Judge
Millennials and Gen Zs bring many good things to the workplace. A commitment to the environment, acceptance, and a willingness to gladly embrace diversity are among their best qualities. This means they have little tolerance for the all-too-common human tendency to find a reason to “look down” on others. Millennials and Gen Zs do not respond well to the judgment of a boss or older peer, but they do respond well to engagement and goodwill. They respond well to the supervisor who invests, helps, and guides when mistakes are made. The supervisor who makes it clear their job is to help the Millennial or Gen Z be successful will see a strong return on their investment.
For example, when a Millennial or Gen Z is late for work, seize the opportunity to “talk through” time management. The whole idea of “time” as a resource to be managed, may be a new concept. Not because they are unable to manage time, but it may be they have never been provided guidance about the value of managing their time.
The same can be said when it comes to making good decisions. When a Millennial or Gen Z demonstrates poor judgment concerning a work product or a relationship at work, take the opportunity to “talk through” the benefits of a good decision. You might begin by offering a working definition for good judgment: The wisdom and courage to choose the long-term benefit over the short-term gain. This is often a good definition to begin with because many bad decisions stem from the inability to “wait” for something better. Psychologists refer to this as delayed gratification. Let’s take a closer look at this definition for good judgment:
The wisdom and courage to choose a long-term benefit over a short-term gain.
By wisdom we do not mean something magical or hard to develop. Wisdom is the ability to learn from experience. It is an acceptance that life and work are a journey with many lessons to be learned. Sometimes the lesson is easy. Sometimes the lesson is hard. All that can reasonably be expected is that we learn the lesson life and work is trying to teach us, and then, allow ourselves (and others) to move on.
Courage refers to self-discipline which is nothing more than the ability to say “no” to one’s self. This kind of courage requires a bit of humility. It requires me to develop and use a filter. Not every thought is a helpful thought. Not everything I might want to say should be said. And not everything I want to do should be done. I can choose (filter) my thoughts, words, and actions. I can choose what I think, say, and do. Here again, this may be a new perspective for a team member of any generation: The idea that I don’t have to just react to the behavior of others. Instead, I can choose a thoughtful response.
The final part of our definition, “choose a long-term benefit over a short-term gain,” brings it all together. Experience (wisdom) teaches me how best to respond to a coworker who is rude to me in a meeting. I do not react (the courage of self-discipline). I choose a long-term benefit. I respond in a way that earns greater trust and respect from everyone else in the meeting. For example: I remain courteous and professional as I respectfully disagree with my co-worker. I avoid the temptation to choose the short-term gain of being just as rude to them as they have been to me.
We are all more alike than different
When a leader takes into account the lived experience of Millennials and Gen Zs, behavior that at first seemed hard to understand begins to make sense. Every generation sees the world through the world they have known. The world in which they grew up. The different lived experience of Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z is something which can be named, described, and understood. And what can be named and talked about, can be made better. When we look at these differences from this perspective, we all will find ourselves empathizing with Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z. At the end of the day, we are not so different from each other! Each generation wants to be valued. We all want to make sense out of the world around us and we want to have a sense of purpose. Those basic needs connect all of us!