By Bruce Tulgan, excerpted from Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials
Leaders and managers claim that many Millennials are lacking when it comes to work ethic, work habits, and work style. The underlying truth of this common complaint is that work ethic, habits, and style are often less developed in younger workers. But it’s a mistake to assume that young employees will just grow up and take on old-fashioned attitudes and behavior that older generations exhibit. You simply cannot ignore the impact of Millennials’ short-term transactional approach to work and their insistence on customizing the details of their working lives to optimize their needs and wants.
These factors leave a lot of managers baffled and looking for the exceptions in the young talent pool—those young employees who seem to manifest a more traditional approach to work and already know how to be managed. Such leaders and managers assume that some young employees have it—the good work ethic, habits, and style—while others simply do not. But often what these leaders are really looking for, whether they realize it or not, is an employee whose own ethic, habits, and style are a good match with theirs. Often when leaders reject new employees, it’s because they perceive a bad match. They act as if these were matters set in stone.
One partner at an American law firm I was working with, whom I’ll call Mr. Gold, had a reputation for working well with the young associates. I asked him what his secret was. “I make it so they don’t have to be clever. I tell them, ‘This is who I am. This is what I work on. This is what time I come in. This is what time I usually leave. This is what I expect from you. This is how to work for me.’” I asked Mr. Gold if he agreed with the statement that “some people know how to be managed and others don’t.” Gold said, “It’s actually, ‘Does this person know how to be managed by you?’ I guess the difference is that I see teaching them how to be managed by me as my responsibility. I’m not going to teach them how to be managed by someone else. But I can teach them how to be managed by me. You have to tell them, ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’” said Gold. “That’s a good place to start.”
Set Ground Rules on the Intangibles
“This young woman who worked in our office was always coming in moping around here,” I was told by a manager in a medical devices company. “She always had an excuse. Her personal life was always out there. Bad days for her were bad days for everyone. Ironically, if you tried to talk to her about the fact that she was leaving early or moping around, she’d freeze right up. Even if I tried to say, ‘I know you locked your keys in the car, I know you had to go to Cleveland, I know your uncle is sick, but you really can’t leave until your shift is over,’ she’d turn around and tell me in this cold, harsh tone, ‘My personal life is none of your business.’” The manager continued, “I finally sat down with her and said, ‘Listen, it’s up to you whether or not you want to share your personal issues with people here at work. But you need to do that outside your work time.’” I told her, “‘Your personal life is your own business, but you can’t let your personal issues interfere with our business here. You have to follow the same ground rules as everybody else.’”
The manager continued, “When she started to freeze up, I told her, ‘You can’t freeze up now. We have to be able to talk about your job performance. This isn’t about your personal life. You can’t use your personal life as an excuse for leaving early and then the next day tell me it’s none of my business.’ You need to leave your personal issues at the door when you come to work. This is a place where you focus on work. You don’t need to feel bad about your personal problems here. You can feel good about your work. But you have to smile. Use a pleasant tone of voice. Fake it if you have to. When you come in here, you have to be professional.’ To my total delight and surprise, she was fine after that—not that she didn’t slip up now and then. My catch-phrase with her after that was, ‘Fake it if you have to.’ That was my way of reminding her to be professional. I told her, ‘I have to be able to talk to you about your performance without you freezing up. I have to be able to tell you when your performance is lagging and you need to improve. We have to be able to have these conversations.’”
I hear success stories like this every day from smart managers who are willing to put it on the line and take charge. You have to figure out what your expectations are and then speak up. Set ground rules. Maybe there are corporate policies in place already. But often there are no concrete policies to regulate important intangibles like attitude, tone of voice, and other subtleties of professionalism in the workplace. You may need to figure out these ground rules on your own. You may need to say, “Whenever you are working with me, on any task, for any period of time, these are MY ground rules.” Then lay out your ground rules in no uncertain terms, and make it clear they are deal breakers for you: you can’t work with someone who doesn’t follow these ground rules.
Set Ground Rules That Matter
One word of caution: don’t set too many ground rules, or the ground rules will lose meaning. Also, don’t set ground rules just because they are your pet peeves, or they will have no legitimacy. Be honest and rigorous with yourself. What is the business logic behind each ground rule? What do you lose or risk losing as a result of this ground rule? What do you gain? Is it worth it?
Ground rules will be your fundamental performance requirements, so take some time to brainstorm about the broad standards that really matter: Attire? Attitude? Conduct? Cursing? Personal issues? Personal calls? Personal business on company time? What about work hours? Will we keep our conversations focused on work? When I give you directions, can I expect you to ask clarifying questions? Can I ask you to spell out for me the steps you are going to take to execute my instructions? Can I expect you to write things down?
The more you spell out clear ground rules up front, the better things will go. Make your ground rules clear. Use catch-phrases if they come naturally. Then speak them. Write them down. And speak them some more. They will serve as an easy point of reference whenever you want to remind an employee, “We both know that this is one of my ground rules.”
About the Author
Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), , and It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website www.rainmakerthinking.com.