Stereotypes of any kind are harmful to your organization. And generational stereotypes — millennials are lazy, entitled and needy; baby boomers are cranky Luddites who hate change; generation X … well, hates everything and everyone — are no different. Perpetuating these stereotypes negatively impacts diversity and inclusion as well as engagement, productivity and morale, and it makes teamwork and collaboration difficult, if not impossible.
Some of the most pervasive stereotypes surround millennials; those who are roughly 20 to 35 years old, says William A. Schiemann, CEO of Metrus Institute. Schiemann says he’s continually faced with clients’ confusion and misunderstanding about generational differences, and the stereotypes that arise from this confusion.
“What’s amazing is how often organizational leaders that I regularly interview at the Metrus Institute try to label these younger employees as needy, coddled, technology snobs, unprepared for organizational life or scores of other attributes. But digging deeper, I’ll ask if there are differences between their 20-to-25-year-olds and their 30-to-35-year-old millennials. ‘Oh, yes! The older millennials have clearer goals, understand corporate organizations better, they’re more educated’ and on and on. Dial this back for a moment — Of course! They’re more mature and experienced by about ten years!” Schiemann says.
He then asks clients to describe differences between individuals in the 25 to 30-year-old range, and that’s when the lightbulb moment happens, he says.
“I begin to hear about introverts and extroverts, high and low performers, high and low creativity, strong and weak service mindsets, good and poor communicators. You get the point! The stereotyping insanity has led to classifying men and women, racial groups and now generations inappropriately. Even among a narrow slice of millennials, there are huge individual differences; our own research shows larger differences within the same generation than between generations,” he says.
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The key to breaking down these stereotypes and facilitating better relationships is fairly simple: focus on individuals and amplify their strengths while helping them to work on areas of weakness, Schiemann says.
“Jennifer Deal at Center for Creative Leadership has found similar values across age groups — integrity, family, spirituality, love, meaning — as well as a desire to learn new things, balance work and non-work, and be part of a successful team. But within any generational group, we find lots of differences in personalities, current work and family needs, type of skills sought, work style and life goals. Simply put, we must look more appreciatively at individual differences. Failing to do so is tied to low engagement and alignment with the organization, which is a proven formula for lower performance, retention and productivity,” he says.
1. Expand diversity and inclusion training
If you don’t have a program aimed at diversity and inclusion, you are late to the game, Schiemann says. Many of those programs have focused primarily on race and gender but fail to address generational stereotyping effectively. Rob Bruce, vice president of strategy at Kimble Associates says it’s important to understand what different generations can bring to the table, especially the much-maligned millennials. Kimble’s research, the Billing and Burnout Report, polled more than 1,200 respondents through a Google Consumer survey and found that millennials may be more responsible than they are given credit for.
When tasked with managing their time and hours, nearly a third (32 percent) of respondents age 25-34 submit their billable hours to management daily, compared with 30 percent of those over 35. Close to one half (44 percent) of professionals submit their hours on a weekly basis, but that figure is higher at 48 percent for those aged 25-34, the research shows.
“The folklore of the ‘me generation’ does not lend itself to the perception of millennials as well organized, dedicated professionals. However, based on the Kimble report, we see this is just not true. And, in fact, millennials are uniquely set up for this because they’re constantly checking in, they are constantly looking for feedback, and they also are able to use technology to make work/life balance happen. They also see what working all the time did for their own parents so they are making sure that they aren’t neglecting their lives,” Bruce says.
But there are other forms of stereotyping — think about working mothers, dual-career couples, part-timers, and many other stereotypes that persist, says Schiemann.
“The real issues that leaders should be focused on are performance, innovation, service, quality and employee desires, and that will help bridge any artificial differences,” he says.
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2. Add fulfillment training
Fulfillment training is about designing your workforce to take advantage of each person’s specific strengths and interests and aligning them with tasks and projects. So, for example, if you have someone who is a great programmer, you put them on tough software problems instead of making them interact with the marketing team or customers.
Don’t stop your efforts at diversity and inclusion, which is great for creating awareness, but often doesn’t move beyond sensitivity, says Schiemann. That’s a mistake. “Help managers and employees develop skills needed to increase fulfillment, which will align and energize people across many different walks of life. In a restaurant chain that we diagnosed a few years ago, we found that great managers were deeply familiar with their people — who had a sick parent, needed a schedule to work around school, or was dealing with work-life balance issues,” Schiemann says. Fulfillment training can help highlight differences and strengths to better address things like who’s the best person to interface with customers or whose efficiency is best for certain tasks or roles, he says. That type of insight separates good from bad managers.
“The great managers are like chefs who combine unique ingredients into a wonderful meal. Weak managers, on the other hand, tend to rule by one-size-fits-all edicts rather than empowering the team to meet customer needs in creative ways,” he says.
3. Make time to discuss the issues
It should not be hard to find examples of likely stereotypes that are not true — a part-timer who is ripping great code, a working mother who is one of the most innovative producers, or a ‘youngster’ who is strategic and savvy, says Schiemann. “The reverse is also true-a Baby Boomer could be the one who is teaching younger cohorts about technology. Use town halls and other forums to surface the issues. Solutions begin with awareness,” he says.
4. Role play
Bring people to a training event or company party and ask them to role play a member of a different generation or another often-stereotyped group. Ask other members to treat them as a member of that group. Ask them to project how they think someone with that ‘label’ would talk and interact. Uncomfortable, right? The point of this exercise is to highlight how quickly assumptions are made and how often they’re not true, Schiemann says.
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5. Avoid one-size-fits-all programs
In its 2016 Workplace Index, Staples Business Advantage found that one-size-fits-all programs are ineffective in managing multiple generations in the workplace because each generation is driven by different motivations. One generation stands out as being more motivated at work by a sense of purpose, and it’s not who you might think.
Baby Boomers (46 percent) and Generation X (32 percent) are more motivated by having a sense of purpose at work than their younger Millennial counterparts (24 percent), according to the Staples Business Advantage 2016 Workplace Index research. That means you have to take into account individual factors when you’re trying to engage, motivate and retain your workforce, but it’s as much about what you don’t do as what you do, says Schiemann.
It is demeaning, for example, to require leaders who already have highly engaged people to attend engagement training because it is ‘de rigueur,’ says Schiemann. “This penalizes leaders who could be the ones teaching the program to reach the leaders who really need it-sounds like everyone in class being punished because a few came late! Ask HR and other guardians of people processes to avoid one-size-fits-all programs; recognize differentiation and manage to it,” he says.
The bottom line: you can never go wrong treating people with respect and as individuals, Schiemann says. It is time to overcome traditional and emerging stereotypes and begin thinking about how your organization can leverage those differences to be more innovative and to begin matching the energy of the individual with the energy of the organization, he says.