Perceptions are interesting. They shape our decision-making. Sometimes they’re right on target. Other times, not so much. The challenge is not letting generalizations about our co-workers cloud our perception of their value. This is even more important when you’re in the role of a leader.
I have attended several local leadership events recently where the discussion focused on attracting quality candidates that will enable our businesses to be more successful. We talked about the difficulty in finding and retaining good people. In nearly every one of these events, there were comments made about the work ethic of the younger generation. “They think differently”…“They have had things handed to them”…“They want things now… and aren’t willing to work for them.” You’ve probably heard these comments. If you’re older than 35 or so, you may have even said something similar.
I’ve heard people disparage younger workers for my entire working life – starting when I was just 14 – and it’s always hit a sore spot with me. First of all, I don’t think we can generalize or label an entire generation with such broad strokes. All of our attitudes and behaviors are developed over a period of years and molded by a variety of circumstances and experiences. Human beings are unique. There are no absolutes that fit every group. Secondly, if we can label employees so generally, it becomes easy to attribute business problems to the “work ethic” of the employees, instead of to addressing company culture or some other underlying problem.
Sure, the younger generation (to me, everyone is younger, but I’m talking about you 30 and younger folks) is generally tech savvy. Smart phones, texting, Twitter, Snapchat and other good stuff that I feel clueless about seem to come naturally and can be great assets to businesses. But, there are people older than I am (yes, there ARE a few of them) who are equally as tech savvy. Sure, employees from my generation are generally responsible, dependable, good workers… but some are definitely not. And sure, the generation raised during World War II generally has a much higher respect for authority than my generation or yours…but many younger workers show that same level of respect.
Work ethic and responsibility aren’t automatically a result of when you were born, and sometimes they can be positively or negatively affected by the culture of an organization. New employees, whatever the age, come to work with positive expectations. Sometimes the work is different than they expected… maybe harder; maybe not as challenging as they hoped. Regardless, they want to be successful. People also want to be accepted. If our preconceived attitude towards new team members is negative, it shows: we’re not friendly; we’re not helpful; we don’t share our knowledge. Unfortunately, if we’re not aware that we possess some generalized attitudes (call them paradigms, stereotypes or biases – whatever makes you feel better), we tend to treat our people in a way that hinders their chance for success – and the success for the team. When that happens, the new person struggles – and all too often our off-target “perception” becomes the reality by which we judge our people.