What’s the Matter with Kids Today?

If you haven’t picked up on it by now, you’ll soon realize that I will take any excuse to reference a Broadway musical number. But given my topic today – engagement and retention of gen Y and millennial workers – this little ditty from Bye Bye Birdie seemed appropriate. It’s easy to feel like millennials – defined by Brandon Hall Group as the workforce born after 1980 – come with a whole new set of instructions.

And indeed our 2014 Talent Management survey found that 39% of organizations expect turnover among this group to increase in the coming 12 months, and only 16% consider themselves good or very good at attracting and recruiting members of this generation. Even worse, 24% say that engagement among this group is poor, making it the most disengaged group within today’s organizations.

So what IS the matter with kids today? It may not be that different from what’s the matter with everyone else, but organizations may need to put a little more focus on how they go about solving the puzzle of getting through to this generation. Here is a generational spin on three key strategies:

Aligning work with strengths. Education, sports, and extracurricular activities have reinforced what I call the “special shiny snowflake” quotient. Many of the youngest generation in the workforce have grown up being told that they are special in their own unique way. The trick for us as managers is to help align these strengths and unique capabilities with the goals of the business – something just 22% organizations say they are very good or excellent at. If their skills are not aligned to what drives business results, there needs to be different conversation. But where you can help individuals play to their strengths – within the construct of business results – they will be more productive, more engaged, and the organization as a whole will benefit.

Timely, informal feedback. We all like to know we are doing a good job, but millennials in particular seem to thrive on feedback. Not the formal performance review, but the real, actionable, in-the-moment coaching that great managers give. The kudos for a great presentation or the suggested tweak when a deal is lost are extremely valuable. Technology and social media have made instant feedback a part of how every generation expects to interact. You post something on Facebook or Twitter and it’s immediately apparent if people think what you said or did is positive or negative. Incorporating this kind of instant feedback into the workplace will not only improve results, but improve communication. Today only 14% of organizations say their managers are very good or excellent at providing timely, informal feedback.

Recognize and reward behavior and performance. It’s one thing to say “this is what we expect.” Highlighting examples of what you mean is even more powerful. A retail organization may tell its associates that they are responsible for delivering great customer service. But when they see a co-worker recognized for going out of their way to help a customer find a product, or see someone being rewarded for establishing a customer relationship that turned into repeat business, they have a clear example of what to emulate. Today, half of organizations say they do only a fair or poor job rewarding and recognizing the right behaviors and exemplary performance. Actions speak louder than words, so rewarding and recognizing the right behaviors gives the next generation of the workforce something to look up to.

So maybe there’s not so much wrong with kids today, we just need to find the right common ground to point all of us in the same direction.

Mollie Lombardi, VP of Workforce Management Practice and Principal Analyst, Brandon Hall Group

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