By Bruce Tulgan, excerpted from Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials
Idealism is both a privilege and a burden of youth. But Millennials’ idealism may look very different from that of generations past. All the leading research shows Millennials are more idealistic than any other new youth cohort since the first wave of baby boomers came of age in the 1960s. Millennials are more concerned about the well-being of the planet, humankind, and their communities than older cohorts were in their twenties. Most Millennials say there are causes and values they believe in enough that they would be willing to sacrifice their own time, money, comfort, and even well-being. As a result, it is no surprise that they often look to values issues when they are considering a new job: Do they believe in the company’s mission? Do they approve of how you do business?
What is often confusing to managers is that they have a hard time pinning down Millennials on the values spectrum in a way they can understand. “When I’m hiring young entry-level employees, I’m looking for a good values fit,” said one senior executive. “With this generation, it seems like anything goes, more or less. No respect for tradition, no respect for their elders, no respect for experience, no respect for all the old-fashioned values: discretion, diligence, courtesy, honesty. You pick the clean-cut kid with Eagle Scout on his résumé, and he shows up late to work, bad-mouths his coworkers, and steals the stapler off your desk. Then you look at this long-haired kid who is listening to music on his mp3 player all day and he shows up to work early, works hard, stays late, says ‘yes sir’ and ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ It used to be that I could pick them out of a crowd. Not anymore. Not with this generation. How do you find the ‘Good ones?’”
Managers tell us every day that they have a hard time understanding how Millennials look at traditional values issues. Are they the new idealists, or are they the post-values generation for whom anything goes? Over and over again, we find that Millennials’ ideals tend to be rather idiosyncratic. They are products of an information environment that allows them to mix and match seemingly unrelated or incompatible beliefs. Like everything else in their lives, Millennials customize their deep inner values. For example, it is not uncommon to find a Millennial who considers himself a person of faith, but not one you would likely recognize. As one Millennial explained, “I was born and raised Baptist, and I am still Baptist. I go to church sometimes with my parents to supercharge my spirit. But mostly I’m into Buddhist teachings right now. To me there is nothing inconsistent about that.”
Given this inscrutable nature, how can managers identify Millennials who are more likely to manifest those good old-fashioned values the senior executive was talking about above: discretion, loyalty, honesty, and self-sacrifice?
Our research shows that you can’t, and you shouldn’t, even try. You simply cannot divine deep inner values from interviews, tests, recommendations, and résumés. In fact, trying to figure out who Millennials are deep inside is the wrong tactic. How can you possibly figure out what their mind and spirit are really like? How can you figure out what their inner motivations really are? You are not qualified to do so. And I would argue that it’s really none of your business anyway.
Here’s what my research firm has learned: You cannot teach them what to believe, but you can certainly teach them how to behave. It’s not really your place to teach them values. But it is certainly your place to teach them how to be good citizens within your organization.
Define What It Means to Be a Good Citizen in Your Company
The CEO of a small company I’ve worked with gained some notoriety a few years back with his “no-jerks” policy. What did that mean exactly? According to one manager who worked for that CEO, “It was a little vague, but it was meant to capture those intangibles like your attitude, how you talk to people, how you treat people. Not exactly what kind of person you are, but how you conduct yourself with colleagues, with customers, with vendors. When something comes up, do you try to blame other people? Are you saying nasty things behind other people’s backs? Do you make excuses? Are you cutting out when everybody else is busting their humps staying all night?” Is a no-jerks policy really so much vaguer than encouraging people to practice discretion, diligence, courtesy, and honesty? Maybe a little bit. But these values mean different things to different people. That’s why they can be so hard to teach. Still, such intangible elements of performance often matter a lot to managers and have a big impact on an employee’s ability to succeed in a particular organization.
What does it really mean to be a good citizen in your workplace? The key is to create shared meaning through shared language and experience. In the military, enlisted people are taught to salute and call officers sir and ma’am. One trend on the rise in the workplace is etiquette training, in which young employees are taught good old-fashioned manners, like saying please and thank you. Safeway caused a stir back in the late 1990s when they asked store employees to make eye contact with customers and smile. It was controversial, but at least the requirement was clear.
Decide what really matters in your organization, and keep it simple. Whatever values you want them to practice, you have to do the hard work of making the intangible more tangible. What do discretion, courtesy, honesty, and self-sacrifice actually look like in your workplace? Describe it. Spell it out. And break it down.
But one important word of caution: Millennials have giant BS detectors. If you want to teach them about good workplace citizenship, you had better not act like a jerk yourself. As the manager I mentioned earlier said, “The ‘no-jerk’ policy put a lot of pressure on those of us in the leadership team to not act like jerks… Everyone has their moments, and you would definitely hear about it from some of the younger folks. They’d say, ‘Who’s acting like a jerk now?’ So, you definitely had to walk the talk.”
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 email@example.com, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website www.rainmakerthinking.com.