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The Millennial myth

It turns out the Boomers and Millennials aren’t so different, and they can form great teams

Every day we hear complaints about young people. We complain that they have a sense of entitlement. They aren’t motivated. They don’t have any loyalty to their employers…

Not surprisingly, dozens of articles and books have also been written on how to reduce conflict between the generations.

But are we making too much of generational differences?

Dr. Jennifer Deal, an organizational psychologist with the Centre for Creative Leadership in California, has been researching generational differences for the past 15 years and has discovered that most differences can be better explained by other variables.

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An individual’s life stage and their level within the business have bigger impacts on behaviour than their “generation,” she says.

This isn’t new. Deal says if you read the research literature from the 1960s, people said the same things about the Boomers.

Everyone forgets what they were like when they were younger, Deal says. In fact, examples go back thousands of years showing older generationsmaking these same complaints about the younger generation.

Jennifer Deal-book-0071842675Deal, who wrote the recently published book, “What Millennials Want from Work,” isn’t denying that people are influenced by the time period in which they grow up. “Those growing up at different times do have different norms,” she says. For instance, she laughs, one of the differences between Millennials (those in their 20s and 30s) and older generations is that Millennials have more tattoos.

But don’t laugh too fast. Deal also recounts the story of a recent court case in the United States about whether an employee should be forced to cover up his tattoos. The court sided with the employee, saying that there had been a cultural shift in the acceptability of tattoos.

While we are affected by the era we grow up in, our understanding of it isn’t nearly as precise as you might think. Even the names of the generations and the cut-off years for each generation are basically fabrications. If you read the literature, you’ll see different names and different years assigned to the same groups.

Deal cautions that it’s dangerous to label people according to their generation because by doing this, we stereotype people and ignore who they are as individuals. Instead, it’s more helpful to ask yourself “What does this person want?” rather than making assumptions because of their generation.

When it comes to differences that have an impact on the workplace, Deal says her research shows that the things people from different generations want really aren’t that different. People want to be paid well, be respected, and have opportunities to learn and develop.

In particular, Millennials demonstrate high levels of commitment and will work hard if a business provides the working conditions they crave, and Deal offers several strategies that farm managers can use to keep them engaged.

“Millennials want to have people they care about and people who care about them at work,” says Deal, who figures this makes sense given that people spend more waking hours at work than they do at home.

Managers can create opportunities for staff to get to know each other and to develop friendships. For example, creating sports teams or holding social events allows employees to get to know each other outside of the restrictions of their daily interactions.

Deal knows of one company that created a council, made up of younger and older employees, to plan opportunities for employees to socialize.

When it’s appropriate, and as long as employees are getting their work done, Deal also recommends managers not penalize employees for socializing at work.

Deal is also a proponent of encouraging mentoring relationships. These could be formal or informal and can be bi-directional. For example, a younger staff member could mentor an older person on using technology. “Everyone has something to learn and something to contribute,” says Deal.

In addition, while people who are similar to each other tend to form mentoring relationships, Deal encourages managers to take on mentees who are different from themselves. This is increasingly important in our diverse workplaces.

In fact, mentoring relationships may work best when you “jump a generation” so there is less competition between mentor and mentee, continues Deal. For example, Boomers (born between 1946 and 1965) and Millennials may link well together.

One of the criticisms often levelled at Millennials is that they share their opinions too freely, even about those who are above them in the hierarchy. Deal recommends embracing this trait.

After all, she points out that employees are being paid to contribute. “Provide outlets for them to be heard. Show them you are listening… this builds trust.”

The key is to coach Millennials on where and when to express feedback. They may need guidance to strike a balance in knowing when to use electronic, phone or in-person communication.

It’s said that people don’t leave organizations, they leave bosses. Deal says this is true of all generations. Millennials want to have good relationships with their managers. They want to feel appreciated and they want to be able to trust their bosses.

Deal thus urges managers to be honest and to have important conversations face-to-face.

Millennials crave feedback. Managers should provide feedback to employees as a normal part of workflow, not just during the annual performance review.

Guidance and coaching will be more effective than a command-and-control style of leadership, says Deal. Millennials value autonomy, and they resent being micromanaged.

Being able to learn and develop in their jobs is also important to Millennials, as is making use of emerging technology. Managers would be wise to give their employees opportunities to learn new skills and make use of new technologies when possible, says Deal.

Millennials also want to feel that their work is meaningful. Managers should ensure that employees are aware of how the tasks they do make a contribution.

Opportunities for company-sponsored volunteering will make employees feel they are making a difference. Working together to help a charity can also help build social bonds between team members.

Millennials have been criticized for the value they put on work-life balance. While there is a seasonality to cropping that can’t be avoided, Deal says it can help retain employees if you can smooth out the spikes in workload. Hiring more employees for the busy seasons, or pulling work forward when possible, will show you care about employee stress, says Deal.

Being flexible about time off in the less busy seasons may also appeal to employees, particularly those with young children.

To engage and retain employees of any age, farm managers would be wise to use good management practices. Happy employees will be committed to doing a good job and staying for the long-term.

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