Lack of employee engagement continues to be one of the most vexing problems facing businesses today. Studies show that, on average, only three out of ten employees are fully engaged, five semi-engaged, and two totally disengaged. Regardless of where your company is relative to these averages, anything less than everyone at “full engagement” has a huge impact on productivity and profitability.
One of the most significant contributors to the engagement problem is the differing expectations of employers and employees. Many observers suggest that these differences have become more pronounced in the last decade or so, as Millennials (born between 1977 and 1995) and Gen Z (born after 1995) have become a significant part of the workforce.
Most of us who are Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and Gen X (between 1965 and 1976) grew up with the expectation that we would get education and experience that would ultimately provide us with a career and job security. We sought the “right job” with the “right company” with an eye to long-term commitment and loyalty to that company in return for a long-term commitment and loyalty from that company. This was an idyllic vision that sometimes (even often) failed to materialize, but it was the prevailing model for most.
Businesses led by Boomers and Gen Xers largely followed a “command and control” approach to leadership. Management generally employed a hierarchal pattern that favored not only competence, but tenure and unquestioning loyalty. Employees were deemed to be a necessary component for business success in the same regard as facilities, equipment, and machinery—often referred to as “human capital.” Owners, CEOs, and other highly placed leaders were implicitly granted higher status and were generally deemed to have more of the answers and brilliance required to bring about business success than those employees who were newer or didn’t occupy “important jobs.”
While some Boomer and Gen X leaders resisted these notions, we were all influenced by them to a greater or lesser degree—and business management today still has some strong artifacts as a function of the expectations of our generations.
Contrast those with the expectations of Millennials and Gen Zers. As they enter the workforce, instead of job security, they seek flexible employability. Most do not view their careers as “one-stop shopping.” They value multiple and varied experiences that will enhance their value as not only employees, but in the broader context of their lives. As a result, their commitment to a given job or company is often short-term. This may be extended, however, if they feel their work is meaningful and appreciated.
While they generally respect authority, they often bring new perspectives to their work. They want to be heard, acknowledged and recognized. Because long-term loyalty is not a deep value, if they don’t feel that they are important to their organization, they tend to be quite mobile; they vote with their feet!
These generational differences pose a critical question for today’s business leaders. What should be the prevailing mindset to attract and retain Millennials and Gen Zers?
The general answer is that we must move from Command and Control to Coach and Empower. Six key principles should be top-of-mind in making this shift:
- Understand that your most important customer is your employee. If you desire to create happy customers who buy from you over and over again, start by making sure that your employees are happy and want to come to work.
- Lose the notion of “human capital.” As noted HR expert Marilyn Schenk has said, “People are not property. The term, ‘human capital’ is inherently dehumanizing.”
- Focus your attention more on outcomes than actions. While we recognize that certain actions drive outcomes, Millennials and Gen Zers are generally less driven by standard practices. Desired outcomes may not be negotiable, but more latitude should be given as to how to achieve those outcomes. This is where empowerment and innovation can come alive!
- Question before answering. Rather than providing younger employees with your answers and expertise, encourage their own powers of observation and discovery by asking questions that will help them learn and grow. This isn’t always possible, but it can create a more engaging environment that is appealing to Millennials and Gen Zers.
- Encourage them to question you—and how you do things. Allow this to lead to innovative ideas and experimentation.
- Become mistake-tolerant. “Errors of Commission” (those made in an effort to innovate or improve) should be encouraged, while “Errors of Omission,” (failing to do one’s job) should not.
Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.