Archive for August, 2009
I did battle with an enduring stereotype in generational diversity workshops this week. Hard to say whether I was successful or not, but when I put up this quote, it did produce some reactions:
“Children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”
Was that a Traditionalist talking about Boomers, I asked? Boomers talking about Gen Y? Some heads nodded at the second point amongst my mostly Boomer participants. Then I dropped the bomb: it was Socrates, around 400 B.C. Some things never change.
While the message seemed to carry some weight, I still could not break through the stereotype. In a nutshell, older workers today are convinced that Gen Y has no sense of work ethic. I can point out that we are their parents and we raised them and presumably instilled their values; I can suggest that “work ethic” is defined differently by Gen Y because of the demise of company loyalty; I can talk about shifting our perspective and trying to learn from the younger generation until I’m blue in the face and it just doesn’t matter. Young people are lazy. When we were that age we walked backwards to school in deep snow with no shoes for ten miles and kids nowadays don’t appreciate what they have. Will we ever get out of this mindset? What on earth do we hope to accomplish by talking like this?
When the dust settles from these sorts of arguments I always land in the same place: what all generations have in common is that we thirst for respect. We want to be recognized for our contributions, our experience, our hard work and our new ideas. We might define respectful behavior differently, but we all agree that it’s important. There’s a great line from Crucial Conversations that I often quote:
“Respect is like air. If you take it away, it’s all people can think about. The instant people perceive disrespect in a conversation, the interaction is no longer about its original purpose–now it’s about defending dignity.”
What can we do to keep the conversation about Generation Y respectful, and thus productive?
On Monday, two hikers from Michigan went missing on Mount Holy Cross, near Vail Resort. They were last seen at an altitude of 13,300 feet, close to the summit of this rugged and challenging Colorado mountain.
On Tuesday, the Vail Mountain Rescue team searched for them all day without success. Tuesday night, they put out a call to other teams in Colorado for assistance. They asked for teams to report to a trailhead at the base of the mountain, prepared to search all day and to be transported up the mountain via a Blawkhawk heliopter from the nearby National Guard High Altitude Training Center in Eagle, Colorado. A small group of four of us from the neighboring Summit County Rescue Group responded early on Wednesday morning, including myself, and our group leader, Brian.
As you might imagine, mountain rescue teams have their share of testosterone. Most of us are volunteers and love what we do; we love the outdoors, serving our communities, and knowing that we’ve made a difference in people’s lives. But if we’re to be truly honest, we also love helicopters, ATV’s, media coverage that makes us look like heros, and the ability to show off the best of our skill and talent. Although a high percentage of mountain rescue team members are men, I would venture to say this has more to do with the type of person that is attracted to mountain rescue than it does with gender. I’m a woman and I’m all over the “helicopter-on-the-5:00-news” thing.
But let’s get back to Brian. Brian is a different breed of mountain rescue leader. He is assertive when he needs to be but laid back in his approach; he’s focused on performance but always practical; and above all, he has a top-notch sense of what makes a good teammate, whether that be in the context of an individual on our team, or a team within the mountain rescue community.
As team leaders gathered around the incident commander on Wednesday morning, the desire to shine was evident. Several teams had driven a long way in the middle of the night to get there, and everyone was eager to make a mark on the search. The incident commander asked for a team with high angle specialists (climber-types with technical rope skills) to take the toughest section on top of the mountain, and the competition for the assignment was palpable. Then he asked for other teams to take less technical but still challenging sections below the summit. Then he said, “I have a relatively easy section, lower down in Reed Meadow, that I need covered. It’s not a likely search area, but we need to close it out.”
No one raised their hand. Clearly, there was no glory to be had in Reed Meadow.
Brian, in typical fashion, shrugged and said, “The Summit County team would be happy to cover that section.”
“Great,” said the IC. “You’ll load the chopper on the second run, right after the dog team.”
The four of us geared up, excited to be going in so quickly. The Blackhawk landed in a wide open field, and we loaded up and took off. Shortly before our landing in Reed Meadow, one of the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office deputies on board signaled to Brian, holding up two fingers and pointing out the window. Sure enough, our missing hikers had been spotted already, waving frantically at us from below. Within a half hour, they had been picked up and transported back to the staging area and the mission was over. The teams that had driven so far and been so eager to show their prowess never even got the chance to go into the field.
The moral of the story: Leadership and teamwork are about seeing beyond one’s own desires to the bigger picture. What’s needed overall? Who can fill that need, regardless of the prestige it may or may not bring? There might have been a couple of us (no, I’m not admitting anything) who felt a little disappointed when we heard Brian volunteer us for the “easy” job. But in the end, no one got the Blackhawk ride but us.
I was leading a workshop in generational diversity for a group of Generation Y military interns last week, and my PowerPoint presentation began to act up, advancing slides on its own despite the fact that I wasn’t even touching the remote. I struggled with it for a few minutes, then gave up in exasperation. “What generational stereotype does this speak to?” I asked the young participants.
They didn’t even hesitate. “Old people don’t get technology!” they shouted in unison.
I kinda like that. An older crowd might have sat in what they considered to be polite silence, which would only have heightened my embarassment. The Millennials just put it all out there so we could laugh about it.
It made me think about all the things this generation brings to the table in today’s workplace. We talk a lot about the sense of entitlement, the lack of loyalty, the different work ethic—all those things we perceive as negatives. What about the positives? I’m reading a great new book called Keeping the Millennials, by Dr. Joanne G. Sujansky and Dr. Jan Ferri-Reed, and here are some of the high points:
- Millennials are good at saying what they think. I spend a lot of time teaching older employees to put their “left hand column thoughts” out there, to use Chris Argyris’s term; with the younger generations, you don’t have to sell them on the value of being candid.
- Millennials understand how to harness the power of technology, especially social media, for competitive advantage.
- Millennials get that we live in a global environment, and they place a high value on diversity, seeing it as a source of creativity and dynamism. Show a Gen Y job candidate two photos, one of a boardroom full of middle-aged white men and the other a boardroom full of people of different ages, races, cultures and genders, and they will choose to work for the latter company.
- Millennials are results-oriented rather than “put-in-the-time” oriented, and they value work/life balance. We could learn a thing or two from that.
- Millennials want to make a difference; they look for companies that are socially responsible within their communities.
Perhaps most significantly, in my opinion, Millennials have been raised in a collaborative world. They did everything in groups when they were in school; group sports, group class projects, even group dates. In other words, they understand the importance of teamwork. They understand what makes a team tick, and they enjoy working in a team environment where they can collaborate and brainstorm with each other. What a great strength to leverage!
What are you doing to leverage the strengths of your Gen Yers?