LAS VEGAS—When the baby-boomer generation complains about the work habits and behaviors of the millennial generation, perhaps they have only themselves to blame.
After all, the boomers are the ones who raised today's millennials, right?
To understand the attitudes, motivations and work habits of millennials, baby-boomer managers need to understand how millennials were raised and how technology has influenced the way they learn, according to a couple of researchers who addressed workplace trends at the 2015 Automotive Aftermarket Parts Exposition (AAPEX) in Las Vegas.
Understanding the psyche of millennials also is important for companies that need to attract and hire this new crop of workers who will be filling the jobs of retiring baby boomers.
“The most successful companies will be the ones that both understand, validate, affirm and then motivate whatever group of employees you have, to get the best performance out of your team,” said Jim Pancero, an industry sales and sales management consultant.
While baby-boomer employees value independence and bonuses, millennials desire coaching, team work and flexible work schedules. These differences come from how they were raised and what they experienced growing up, according to Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University.
Baby boomers commonly are defined as the 51- to 70-year-old age group; Generation X are ages 38-50; and Gen Y/millennials are 16-37. Gen X is a smaller percentage of the population, with the older Gen Xers tending to emulate baby boomers while the younger ones tend to align more with millennials.
Millennials are becoming a larger percentage of the workforce as baby boomers retire, Mr. Pancero said, therefore businesses run by baby-boomer managers are going to have to adapt the way they handle employee engagement in order to attract millennial workers.
He noted that many managers are complaining about having a hard time finding employees with the same motivations as they have—”They're looking for 30-year-old boomers,” he said.
“There are very big differences between the values of GenYers or millennials and baby boomers and the 'Silent Generation' (those over 70).... Every generation thinks their values are American values,...and they are so unconscious to us, we don't actually think about them. All we know is we're offended when people violate our values,” Ms. Yarrow said.
“Values are a tremendous source of bonding when you find people that share values similar to yours and they are also these really spectacular forms of conflict.”
Thus there is often a large chasm between older managers and millennial workers, she said.
The difference in values mirrors personal goals of the different generational employees, Mr. Pancero noted.
Boomers want to make a lot of money by outselling everybody else on the sales team. On the other hand, millennials want to make money contributing the most to the team's success, but they don't want to work that hard at it, he said. They don't want to work extra hours like their parents did, costing them time away from their families.
“That's their values, and you can't change values,” he said.
The disparity in values is due to the stark differences in how baby boomers and millennials grew up, Ms. Yarrow said, pointing out:
c Parents of millennials spent about seven times more on discretionary items for their families, which does contribute to a sense of entitlement, she noted, but this generation was growing up in a period of unprecedented prosperity and with a consumption mindset. However, now that they are grown up, basic expenses are much higher than any previous generations at their age, and they carry unprecedented levels of debt, she said.
c Millennials grew up with the Internet, enjoying instant access to information. Baby boomers and Gen Xers had to learn patience in looking up information and accomplishing tasks without a computer. They learned patience, fortitude and the ability to “stick it out” through a project, she said. Meanwhile, the millennials' challenge is wading through too much information, making sense of it and finding a way to whittle things down. “So their brains actually are formed in different ways than older generations are.”
c As children, millennials had more influence in their families than past generations, such as influencing family vacation choices and what cars to buy. “Everything is affected by this generation of kids, our millennials, in a way that our generation—and we're raising these kids—never would have had that level of influence,” Ms. Yarrow told an audience of mostly baby boomers.
“So when they get into your workplace and start expecting to be able to tell you what to do, it's not like they've suddenly gone rogue. This is really how they were brought up as having a lot of stock put into their opinions about things and a lot of applause around what they wanted to eat, where they wanted to go, what they hoped for.”
When it comes to job training, millennials tend to be distracted easily and bored with too many details. Technology is to blame for this, Ms. Yarrow said.
“There is a reason why you have to tell them things more than once. It's not always that they're not paying attention; it's more like they're just not pre-wired to focus for long periods of time. They're prewired to focus in spurts. They have other strengths but being able to focus is not one of them...that makes learning complex things different for them,” she said.
“They are going to get bored with things more easily. That really stimulating online world that they've grow up in is not the same as sitting in a classroom and listening to a presentation of material. They want things that are more interactive. They want things that are more exciting because frankly that's how their life has been. That's how their brains have formed,” she said.
“They don't want to learn something until they know exactly how they will be using it and they expect to get advanced more quickly and feedback more often. This has to do with the different way they think about things.”
Visual cues—such as graphs and charts—are easier and more understandable ways for millennials to acquire information, Ms. Yarrow said.
“One of the ways I think managers do better in communicating to their employees is by using visual cues as much as possible. After all, this is a generation that grew up from day one learning things experientially—playing video games, playing with iPads.”
They're going to respond better with active engagement, not passive learning, she noted.
Along with visual job training, millennials work better with teams and coaches.
Parents inadvertently taught millennials to be dependent, often doing things for them, “teaching them to not grow up,” Ms. Yarrow said.
So managers need to act more like coaches in the workplace when dealing with millennial employees. “They're going to want more of your feedback and more of your attention. They got so much more when they were kids. They want things personalized to them. They want to understand the relevance of things. They don't necessarily respect your authority or accomplishments. You have to earn that. They have a lot of difficulty with criticism. And they want to get closer to you,” she said.
Ms. Yarrow urged managers not to get annoyed when a millennial employee asks for a raise or promotion prematurely.
“In some ways they don't consider the old method of working your way up within a company to be successful. In a way, you can't blame them. They've seen the erosion of trust within companies (through their parents' experiences),” she said.
“The message that's been communicated to this generation is that they can circumvent traditional hierarchies to get what they want. Their respect of power and their respect of organizational structure and their respect of hierarchy have been affected by the fact that they are able to maneuver around without it,” she said.
Recalling how millennials were allowed more say in family decisions growing up, “they feel very powerful in a way no other generation of young people has ever felt powerful,” she said. “They understand their influence in a way no other generation has felt their influence before. And they bring that into the workplace and it clashes with the values of most GenXers, baby boomers and the so-called “Silent Generation.”
“They are not what you would call aspirational,” she added. “Other generations looked at senior people and thought, 'If I work really hard, I can get there' or 'I'm going to be really scrappy and do this and go around and find a way to make it happen for myself.' There were things to aspire to.
“This generation thinks they're kind of OK now. There's much more of a sense of, 'But I should be admired,' because frankly they got all these trophies (when they were young.) That's sort of been how they've been raised.”
Millennials grew up in the self-esteem-building era where kids were given trophies for just showing up, she noted. “So their connection between what they do and the outcomes of their actions are looser than it was for your generation where you had to fight your butts off to get that trophy.
“They got trophies for everything. So how do they know when their actions are a requirement for an outcome?”
“I believe how you motivate your next generation of workers can only be accomplished when we understand what motivates them and their culture as they join your company,” Mr. Pancero said.
The easiest ways to define the differences between the generations is looking at what games each generation usually played as pre-teens, he explained. Boomers were more likely to have played unorganized games outside that involved a measured hierarchy among the players and making up the rules for how to play—they grew up learning to act independently in their job and climb the hierarchy, he said.
Conversely, millennials likely participated in organized team sports with coaches explaining the rules and encouraging the kids to work as a team. Millennials expect similar parameters in the workplace.
Those who are ignoring the generational differences are continuing to look for boomers to join the sales team and aren't offering coaching, training, process or structure—”their attitude is, 'Go out and sell something and do it your own way,'” he said.
Mr. Pancero said that during a job interview, the first question from a boomer applicant often revolves around, “How much money can I make and will you leave me alone to get my work done?” Conversely, millennial applicants want to know, “How much time do I get off and who's my coach?”
In the average boomer-run company, the typical annual sales contest involves giving money rewards to the winners—”It's a cash-motivated generation,” he said. However, millennials are more motivated by short, frequent contests with a variety of themes and rewards involving free PTO (personal time off) days.
“It's more motivational to have time off than it is to have dollars,” he noted.
“It's neither right nor wrong; it just is. And it's going to become more of a demand as these people become stronger in the workforce and are also able to make more decisions.”
Mr. Pancero said attracting milliennial employees has become a competitive process, and in order for companies to attract new hires to their automotive businesses, they have to understand what applicants are thinking: “Why am I going to be attracted to join your company? What are the values I see and what is the culture I see and what's the environment I see? Is this going to be a positive place to be?
“This is the bottom line today. And the problem is, most companies are only presenting a boomer model of success, they don't have a millennial model to talk about.”
He also noted that the business-to-business sales process is evolving toward the millennial way of doing things. Instead of having a results-focused selling strategy, businesses need to adopt a process-focused strategy that provides a consistent method of following through on sales prospects and closing deals.
The average baby boomer salesperson views selling like an independent gun fighter, he said, “with the assumption that if you're old and still alive, you must be good and you did it your own way. So they each choose their own weapons, they choose their own styles, they choose their own messaging....
“The reality today is a sales force's success is being much more based on the SWAT team.... It's a football game not a tennis game. It has consistency and structure—selling as a team with one voice, one structure, best practices defined and active coaching. This is driving the process today,” Mr. Pancero said.
The millennial structure involves the manager acting as the selling process coach and getting involved early in the sales process.
“With the assumption that if we get involved early enough, we can help set direction and philosophy and positioning up front, so we have a more consistent follow through for the rest of it,” he said, adding, “Selling is no longer an artist job where you start with a blank canvas. Selling is now paint-by-numbers. It's more efficient, it's more effective, it's more consistent and it's more profitable.”
Mr. Pancero said businesses cannot attract millennial employees if they are not offering tools, structures, selling processes and coaching.
“You can't figure out why millennials don't want to join your team because you've got nothing to support them. They have played on teams with rules, structure and uniforms and your selling process is defined on independence and 'it depends.' Look at the cultural imbalance that we have. Why would anyone join your company with that difference in culture?” he asked.
“If you have the tools and structures in place that show you have a team approach, you're going to be more marketable to the millennials. As long as you have this boomer culture of only results-focused and independence, call-us-when-you-need-us-but-leave-us-alone-until-then, I doubt you're going to be very marketable.
“The biggest problem with generations today, that I find, is the lack of flexibility and the bias of the senior management, because they're dictating what their sales managers do, which dictates what the sales people do, which dictates how marketable you are.”
Mr. Pancero said several fundamentals are necessary for a company to make itself marketable to millennials: “It's tools, it's coaching, it's training, it's structure, it's process. And the more of those that you can put in place, the more marketable you're going to be and the more people are going to want to join your company,” he said. “They're not going to join your company for 30 years, but you could get a good five or six years out of them and that's the model that's working today.
“This generation of millennials saw from their parents that giving a company 30-years' loyalty doesn't do you a damn bit of good because they watched too many of their friends' parents getting fired a couple of years before retirement. So their attitude is, 'I will make more of my career, I will make more money and get more experiences if I flip jobs every three years.'
“So how do you extend that by at least two years? Showing them that if they're learning more and if their income is increasing, they'll tend to stay. So it's not just the money, it is the environment. What are you doing to improve their skills? What are you doing to improve their abilities? Because when you continue to do that, that gives you stickability, even with the people who are looking to rotate every couple years, because they've seen that's the model that works today.
“So now the companies that are going to get the best employees to do the best work for your company are going to be the ones that are attractive because you have the best tools the millennials are demanding.
“Remember they didn't grow up independent. They grew up on a team. So they're looking at what team they're going to join that has the best tools and the best environment to help them be successful.”
Once millennials are hired, the manager needs to be understanding of their values and attitudes, Ms. Yarrow said.
She offered several strategies for managing millennial employees:
c Activate your empathy. A clash in values can result in anger, but anger is not a good attribute for a manager.
“So if we have empathy for why they got the way they are—it's not because they're bad people or defective or anything like that; it's because of the way that they were raised and the environment that they were raised in...then we can understand and then we can respond calmly and patiently.”
Empathy doesn't mean giving in or acquiescing, she noted. “All I'm talking about in having empathy is understanding them and having insight into their behavior that allows you to see them without judging them, so that you can be proactive rather than reactive in the way that you deal with them.
“I think that you are a more powerful leader when you are calm and confident rather than emotionally charged, angry or reactive.
“So the empathy part of it is to put you in a state of mind where you can be a powerful leader, not a reactive leader.”
c Don't judge the whole generation on the few troublesome millennials. Managers need to protect the business and other employees from the few millennials who “really don't get it,” she said, noting the 80/20 rule—20 percent of your employees are going to give you 80 percent of your problems and get 80 percent of your time.
“Although there are these outliers, those really trouble-making entitled obnoxious GenYers that seem to take up all of your time, do everything you can to get rid of them, so that you can focus your attention on the 80 to 90 percent of the GenYers that you're managing that are fantastic.”
c Use boundaries. “Boundaries calm anxiety and it's something this generation craves in a huge way.... Actually giving them boundaries helps them immensely.... If you give people wide boundaries around what's expected, it actually gives them freedom to explore because they know they're not going to fall off the edge of the cliff or go too far. They're constrained, it helps people.”
She said managers should be clear on what the business culture is, “the club rules,” provide training and make the employees accountable. “Most importantly for this generation, (boundaries) reduce anxiety. They have more anxiety than you do, so they need this more than you do.”
c Provide effective communication. “This is a generation that is fragile and a little bit sensitive to getting negative information. The first thing we have to do is to clarify that the negatives are about the performance not the person,” Ms. Yarrow said.
She suggested communicating in a succinct and direct way and in small portions, remembering their short attention span.
c Provide a sense of purpose. “When they're working, they need to understand what that work means. They are not going to do it for a paycheck. They will do it because it matters. And it doesn't have to matter that they're saving the world. What matters is that they're saving another person (even when it's helping a co-worker with his or her job),” she said, adding, “Give them a vision of the future. Give them a reason why their work matters.”
GenYers would rather have training and flexible hours than a bonus, she added. “So they're motivated by really different things than other generations. It's really not about money for them It's about purpose and meaning in their work. They would in fact take less money in order to feel like their work had more meaning.”
c Offer feedback. Having grown up with social media in which millennials thrive on responses to their posts, this generation needs frequent feedback on their job performance. Ms. Yarrow suggested managers publicly praise employees during a meeting, tweet that they did a good job or include them in discussions with upper management—all to show you value them being there.
“The key here is to stay flexible and innovative in the way that you approach them and offer them opportunities to be flexible and innovative,” she said.
To reach this reporter: [email protected]; 330-865-6127; Twitter: @kmccarr