Dr. Candace Steele Flippin is Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer at Atlanta’s Acuity Brands, in addition to working as a leading researcher on today’s multigenerational workforce. Her data-driven insights into the different norms, expectations and myths that each generation carries have wide-ranging implications for businesses looking to build empowering cultures in our rapidly changing landscape. Listen to Candace’s full episode here, and below, find three things that jumped out at us from the conversation.
1. In modern organizations, lingering norms from command-and-control workplaces are driving generational disconnects.
Many leaders and senior employees today came up in positions and organizations where compliance was the overriding expectation. It wasn’t considered politically correct to talk about emotional needs or to ask questions about a manager’s plan, even if it seemed like there was a better way to do something. With how radically all these norms have changed, as offices have gone from reducing workers’ individuality to tapping into it, it can be easy to forget how quickly this transformation has happened. Many of today’s employees — even those from Generation X — started their careers in a now-unrecognizable working world, and while Baby Boomer and Gen X employees may have dropped many of the expectations and pressures that once governed their jobs, their foundation of understanding still lies in a different era. When Gen Z employees communicate, what they value most is empathy; they want to see that you’re stepping into their shoes and thinking about their words with their whole identities in mind. When Gen Xers communicate, they’re more focused on collaboration and accomplishing tasks. And when Baby Boomers communicate, they’re most attuned to active listening; they want to see that you are paying attention.
As Candace discusses, businesses can and should prioritize building all three of these skillsets in their leaders and employees: we can work to cultivate active listening, collaboration skills and holistic, whole-person empathy all at once. As we do, we should be sure to remind our people why these differences exist in the first place, and how new the norms of today’s workplaces really are. We are all products of our generations, and the more we recognize this, the more compassionate we can be when these differences cause gaps in understanding. We should also be sure to remind everyone that all of us — not just the younger folks — benefit from bringing our whole selves to work, and from the progress we’ve made.
2. The perception that younger generations are averse to hard work is false.
In her research, Candace has found that all generations of employees — Millennials and Generation Z included — value doing well in their role and being fairly paid more than they value work-life balance. This finding contradicts much of what people my generation have been told about Millennials — that they don’t want to work hard, and they don’t think they need to “pay their dues” as early-career employees.
In Candace’s findings, none of this is true, and as leaders, it’s important that we confront this bias. Beyond being unfair to younger employees, it’s also dangerous to incorporate this thinking into your approach to retaining young talent. Work-life balance perks like unlimited PTO cannot replace fair compensation or growth opportunities if you’re looking to incentivize the best young employees to stay.
3. Technology has changed younger generations’ ideas of how long they should have to demonstrate mastery before they get to move on.
To different extents, we’ve all been raised amid “time-bound” conceptions of mastery. We’ve heard it takes 10,000 hours to master something, and many of us started in organizations where leaders were often the people who had been there the longest. Increasingly, younger generations believe things should work differently.
Candace uses the example of video games to illustrate how these younger employees typically approach mastery. When you beat a level in a video game, you move on to the next level. It’s as simple as that. This tends to be how learning and demonstrating ability works through a screen: you go at your own pace, immediately moving on once you’ve shown you can do something. This expectation of constant progression is great in many ways — it fuels personal growth, and encourages employees to rapidly develop new skills. But if this change in expectations isn’t accounted for and managed in workplaces, it can also lead to frustration and disappointment in younger employees. And as time goes on, with schools across the country adopting blended learning and self-pacing models, the gravity of this trend is only going to grow.
Businesses, of course, can’t just promote people whenever they first show a new skill, or stop valuing seniority. We can, however, be as clear as possible with younger employees about what they can expect and when, and about why our systems for rewards, recognition and promotions work how they do.