One of the things Black Dog specializes in is how generational dynamics affect organizational behavior and effectiveness. As I wrote a couple weeks ago, companies across the US are flying headlong toward a massive macro-succession pile-up, and the collective personality of the Millennial Generation (born from ~1980-2000) is going to play a major part in mid-management breakdowns in the next few years.
If you’d like a glimpse of the stress the Millennials are already exerting on organizations, you’ll want to read a new analysis from the Wall Street Journal‘s CareerJournal.com site. In it, Jeffrey Zaslow chronicles how businesses are addressing the Mills’ excessive need for praise:
Employers are dishing out kudos to workers for little more than showing up. Corporations including Lands’ End and Bank of America are hiring consultants to teach managers how to compliment employees using email, prize packages and public displays of appreciation. The 1,000-employee Scooter Store Inc., a power-wheelchair and scooter firm in New Braunfels, Texas, has a staff “celebrations assistant” whose job it is to throw confetti — 25 pounds a week — at employees. She also passes out 100 to 500 celebratory helium balloons a week. The Container Store Inc. estimates that one of its 4,000 employees receives praise every 20 seconds, through such efforts as its “Celebration Voice Mailboxes.”
I could go on forever about the causes for this cohort’s rampant need for attaboys (and I do just that when teaching my clients about working with and marketing to them), but ultimately it boils down to the fact that they were raised in an era where self-esteem was unhitched from accomplishment. It was assumed that if you instilled a kid with a strong self-image, then he or she would be able to ride that confidence to success.
There’s no question that companies like Land’s End and BoA need to teach their managers to more effectively handle younger workers. But what I’m reading here leads me to conclude that these organizations are making a couple significant mistakes, and in the process are assuring that the problems they face will worsen over time.
The first issue is that throwing confetti and handing out gold stars just for showing up is, at best, slapping a band-aid on a sucking chest wound. The theory was that self-esteem assured accomplishment, but we now have ample reason to doubt that conclusion. Millennials demand recognition, but that recognition doesn’t improve performance – it merely reinforces their right to demand recognition. Want some evidence? Review the CareerJournal article in detail – you’re being told about the successes of handing out the attaboys, but where are you told about how those attaboys are driving improved performance?
You’d think that’s the sort of thing a Wall Street Journal article would mention if it were a reality, wouldn’t you?
At the risk of using an inflammatory analogy, you don’t treat a crack addiction by giving the patient more crack, and that’s what blank praise programs are if they’re executed in a vacuum.
Which brings me to the second issue – what are these companies doing to assess and address the actual skills deficits that we know the Millennial cohort suffers from? It’s a generation with a number of tremendous strengths, but it lacks in a couple areas that are key to business success (and essential to the cultivation of the next generation of management). Most notably, they’re not critical thinkers and they lack problem-solving skills. They’re very good at working in teams to achieve clearly defined, short-term goals, but when faced with challenges they haven’t been explicitly trained how to manage, they can “go limp.” Additionally, their highly-touted technical savvy is significantly overrated.
What should be emerging is a picture of companies that are reinforcing unwanted behaviors (my clients lament how much of their formerly productive time is now devoted to massaging egos and managing emotional drama) while taking no steps toward developing the kinds of skills and capabilities that are going to be essential to their ability to compete in the next decade.
Instead of handing Boomer and Xer managers confetti quotas, American businesses need to be arming them with hard training in understanding the Millennial personality so that the demands of cultivating critical performance and management capabilities can be productively hitched to the process of creating a workplace that motivates and rewards all employees.
Millennials need to hear praise, but underneath it all they know when the praise is empty. However, nothing jacks them up quite like being praised for an actual accomplishment. This is where companies need to be heading, and they’re not.