When managers get frustrated, they sometimes describe their work as herding cats. And the more managers are being asked to manage Millennials the more cats it seems they have to herd. If you’ve ever owned a cat, you know what a challenge that can be. Asked to describe the Millennial population, managers use expressions such as sense of entitlement, lazy and lacking loyalty. According to some, they expect the world and don’t want to have to work to get it. Is this reality? Have we doting baby boomers really produced a brood of self-absorbed, lazy brats? Not according to what Dan Schwabel has to say in a recent HBR blog entitled “You’re Probably Wrong About Millennials.” And not according to my recent blog “Advice from Mars on engaging Millennials“.
Just how do these perceptions get formed? Here’s a theory. After the turbulent 60’s, Baby Boomers who entered the corporate world quickly got ahead playing by the rules, climbing the corporate ladder as it were. Pay increases and promotions were rather predictable and movement between companies was rarely sought after age 35 in most jobs. In fact, long term employment was encouraged by large company pension plans which provided good retirement incomes for those who stayed until retirement age. Downsizings were almost completely unheard of events.
Then, over several decades things changed. Two tough recessions drove deep cuts in the workforce. Portable 401(k) plans replaced traditional pension plans. Companies began to talk about employees taking ownership of their development and their futures. Suddenly, the workplace was not safe anymore. The higher your income, the more you were vulnerable in the next restructuring. The once invincible Baby Boomers went from a predictable world to one where they were wearing targets on their backs. As this was unfolding, these Boomers went home at night and talked about it. Their Millennial children heard the messages loud and clear. “You can’t trust your employer to take care of you. There is no company loyalty. I wish I had my own business. Work hard but also take care of yourself, no one else will take care of you.”
Metaphorically speaking, the Boomers, who for decades had behaved like cattle being herded through their careers, began to think like people. People don’t like to be herded in this country, not in the red states and not in the blue states. This new perspective got passed on to their children, today’s Millennials who are now charging into the workforce. Their managers are finding out that you can’t herd humans. The problem is that the managers — those who survived the carnage of the last two recessions — still behave like cattle, letting senior leaders herd them. When they, in turn, try to herd the Millennials, it just doesn’t work. When you prod a cow, it follows. When you prod a human, the human pushes back or leaves the herd.
Millennials push back or they leave. You can develop them, you can motivate them, you can mentor them and you can hold them accountable. But you can’t herd them. So wake up. Engage these talented young people or fail. The choice is an easy one to make. It’s refreshing to see that we’ve raised such a great new generation. America is most fortunate to have them as our future.