The Millennial Trap

By Alexis Sparks written about 9 months ago

My company, Think Shift, helps leadership teams create alignment. Typically, we see the same two fundamental problems surface:

  1. Silent dissent
  2. Silos

I was recently in a hotel conference room sitting with a client’s entire leadership team. As successful and well intentioned as this business is, they were suffering from a problem that seems to plague many long-running and historically successful businesses – individual conflicts from the past that slowly accumulate between members of the leadership team. For years, these conflicts had been calcifying into subtle, unaddressed resentments.

The leadership team realized that these old conflicts (many long-buried and unspoken) were getting in the way of moving their company to the next level of success. As a result, the goal of this meeting shifted to discuss the “elephants in the room.” Over the course of two days, as I watched these experienced senior leaders tear down years of pre-built misalignment, I couldn’t help but see a parallel in the misalignment between Millennials and Baby Boomers.

I am a Millennial fascinated with my own generation. In fact, I’ve started to blog about the topic to give a new perspective and question assumptions that have been made about this generation. My current role allows me to hear insight from the C-suite on this increasingly hot topic.

I believe there is a natural trap that leaders fall into when faced with change, and nowhere is this trap more apparent than in the advertised difference between Baby Boomers/Generation X and Millennials.

There is an overwhelming belief that Millennials are vastly different than any other generation that has come before them – they are self-obsessed, tied to their phones, and too focused on work-life balance over work ethic. The list goes on. Boomer and Generation X, in reaction to this changing workforce, are scrambling to better understand Millennials, spending millions of dollars and devoting time to create a company culture that is more appealing to a younger generation.

Their efforts may be in vain. A recent article from Harvard Business Review concluded that there is no solid data suggesting Millennials’ basic values and desires are much different than Generation X or Baby Boomers. The April HBR article stated that:

“…A group of researchers from George Washington University and the Department of Defense analyzed more than 20 published and unpublished studies examining generational differences and concluded that meaningful differences among generations probably do not exist in the workplace. Most of the small differences are attributed to factors such as stage of life. “

Simply put, what most researchers are lacking is data derived from a control group of young workers from past generations. We have never analyzed a generation like this in the past, so there has been no data collected to compare.

Thus, many studies and articles used in Millennial research tend to use weak data and draw overreaching conclusions. They’re better at generating sensational headlines than usable information.

As leaders devote time and emotion into trying to understand their young workforce, Millennials are exhausted! We have all been clustered into a group labeled lazy and entitled, with little firm evidence to support this verdict. We listen to our managers, leaders, clients and society tell us how frustrating we are or what we are doing wrong. Even worse is reading articles in which the writer portrays Millennials as a completely different species. I am not saying there aren’t lazy, entitled people in my generation – we have our fair share. But, does that mean you need to describe onboarding your new coordinator like training a Labrador puppy?

To cope with being stereotyped (inaccurately!), I believe many Millennials have fallen into silence. The mentality has become, “I will just wait until you retire,” or “I will just start my own business.” This mentality has led to silent dissent amongst Millennials – silent dissent leads to poor communication, and in turn, to organizational silos. It doesn’t help that countless articles and blogs pander to each silo, encouraging the idea that one generation is to blame.

This gripe from generation to generation is not new – we see it in every generation. What has made it so prominent now? I believe the trap that we have fallen into is becoming stuck on the wrong question. The question isn’t “How do I understand my new Millennials?” The question is “How do I react to this new change?”

Come back to our recent executive workshop. As I sat there amongst Baby Boomer and Gen X executives, they finally started to share their own “elephants” and the tension in the room dissipated. What I found so powerful was how they uncovered common threads in their individual perspectives. Alignment came naturally after “my story” began to transform into “our story.” Instead of communicating an effort to build one common story, the executives had stayed silent. Now they could build a common story and strategy, together.

We are now witnessing the same silent dissent amongst Millennials. There has been no effort to create “our story.” “More than one-in-three American workers today are Millennials (adults ages 18 to 34 in 2015), and this year they surpassed Generation X to become the largest share of the American workforce." If leaders want to create a truly successful young workforce, we need alignment in order to be successful and create a culture that eliminates this trap in order to ensure the knowledge and success of the previous generations are passed on to Millennials. What are you doing to ensure this happens in your organization?

If you’d like to discuss this further, get in touch with me at [email protected].