Millennials: Generation Why?!

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Posted by Dora Phillips - 14 August, 2017

Yesterday, I was finishing a meeting with members from my operations team regarding some updates in benefits.  Because our company culture heavily focuses on transparency and education, I was about to share the why behind the change when my next meeting arrived at the door.  

The 25 year old software developer stepped inside and I held up 2 fingers to ask for a couple of minutes to finish my point.  When the ops team left, I apologized to him for the inconvenience.  His response?  “No need.  I like learning how things work.  Can I ask a couple of follow-up questions?”

The exchange made me smile.  I have listened to peers complain about having to explain everything to Millennials and I understand the frustration.  As GenXers we were raised to do as we were told in those early jobs.  At entry level, we only knew enough to do the tasks.  When promoted to manager level, we could see a few more details.  It was only when we reached executive level that we could know enough to see the full picture of the business.

However, this thinking is as outdated as the VCR.  If you have a VCR, you can still play movies.  Of course, you can only watch movies made more than 10 years ago.  Neither the picture nor the sound quality will be as good as watching the same movie using current technologies.  If your company’s culture remains outdated, you may find yourself struggling to find new clients, retain new employees, and deliver with current quality.  You will definitely find it difficult to retain your millennial workforce.

Google “job length for millennials” and you will find numerous articles on how this generation will change jobs more than any other.  Survey data tells us as many as 91% of millennials expect to switch jobs every three years.  For businesses, this indicates a sharp increase in recruitment and onboarding costs and a loss of productivity.  A common calculation estimates that cost to be 6 months of salary for each salaried employee replaced.  Why does anyone leave a job?  Lack of satisfaction is the simple answer, but the most common reasons center around a lack of advancement, development, and recognition mixed with not being able to do meaningful work.

Can your company create a culture that can engage Generation Y through the use of Why?  Being asked “why?” can sometimes be perceived as a challenge to authority. However, to millennials, the reason for asking why is to understand the purpose, value, and background of the task at hand. This helps a millennial find the worth, urgency, and understanding in their job leading to satisfaction and an extended tenure with the company.

How do you begin to change your leadership culture?  Try planning for these three Why’s:

Why is this our process?

A common complaint about millennials is that they expect instant gratification.  Another way to look at it is that the millennial world moves quickly and efficiently.  Many of the tasks that used to take time—booking a reservation, finding a phone number—are all done in seconds using technology.  Because millennials grew up experiencing increased efficiency, they look for ways to update or even replace processes in the workplace.  Even if a process is working, it might just be able to work better.  Take the time to explain the reasoning behind the policy and be open to changes from any team member, regardless of age, experience, or title.

Why is this our policy?

One of our newer hires shared a frustration about her last job recently.  Work travel by taxi could be reimbursed, but Uber reimbursement was “against policy.”  She put together a proposal to change the policy explaining how much faster and easier it is to process reimbursements using Uber’s electronic resources instead of paper taxi receipts and how much time can be saved grabbing an Uber over flagging a cab.  Her proposal was denied.  After a few more such policy problems, she began looking for a new position.  Although I am grateful to her former employer since she excels in her role at our company, I wish I could help them understand how they lost a great hire.  Millennials know that policies are written by people and those same people can simply change them. 

Why is this our direction?

Because millennials place a high value on purpose and meaning in their work, they have a need to understand the organization and the decisions that guide it.  If they cannot find a purpose in work, they tend to want to spend as little time as necessary on it – part of the quest for efficiency.  By being able to step back and see the big picture, millennials can not only find worth and value, they can also find direction for their own careers within the company.  As they understand more of the inner workings of the company, millennials can see areas for self-development and advancement.  Instead of spending time and money recruiting and onboarding senior leaders, you can develop the skills beginning the day of hire.

About 2,515 years ago, Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote about change with a common translation being, “The only constant in the world is change.”  His words continue to be true.  Every business changes—whether we want it to or because the world changes and we need to evolve or become extinct.  Saying any version of “because I said so” instead of exploring the Why? simply tells an employee that you do not wish to explain the reasoning to them.  They leave the conversation feeling undervalued and your company may miss an opportunity to innovate and improve.

The millennial generation is the most educated we have ever produced.  They consume information at rapid rates and they sincerely want to help craft the future of their companies.  I am looking forward to when the young developer in my office circles back around with a suggestion or two.  I know when I take the time to question his reasoning, he will not leave me wondering why.

Topics: culture, millennials


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