Ah, graduation season.
That time of year when parents rejoice, students turn into professionals, and businesses brace for a horde of incoming hires they seem to not understand at all.
At least that’s the sense I got from a Gallup report released last week. Evidently, millennials are having a tough time in the office. Disengagement is up, career happiness is down, and young people are on the move. All of it’s costing money, and worse, the high turnover is degrading the ability of organizations to plan for the future.
For years businesses have struggled to understand millennial employees, what with their strange working demands and digital-age predilections. By reporting on the immensity of the problem, Gallup has shone light on an important issue for L&D. But a research report last year, also done by Gallup, seems to provide a crucial lens through which to view it—and maybe point a clear way forward.
The struggle is real
In “How Millennials Want To Work And Live,” Gallup used data from a cross-section of the company’s research to paint a portrait of a generation having a fitful experience at work.
- 71% of millennials aren’t engaged at work, the most of any generation.
- Less than 40% are “thriving” in “any aspect of well-being.”
- Half of all millennials don’t plan on being with their current company in a year.
What’s going on here? Are millennial employees really that depressing?
I don’t think so. More likely, millennial employees would love to be happy at work. They just aren’t working under the kind of leadership that could help them succeed.
The boss did it
“Managers influence everything that gets done in organizations,” wrote Jim Harter in April 2015. “A great manager improves lives while improving performance. A poor manager makes workers’ lives miserable while destroying performance.”
Harter drew his conclusion from “The State of the American Manager,” Gallup’s 2015 study of how managerial aptitude impacts employee engagement and performance. The report found that managers are responsible for 70% of the variance in employee engagement. Engaged managers are 59% more likely to have engaged employees.
Helpfully, the data was also able to characterize quality management as the exhibition of a few specific behaviors: things like helping employees set goals, focusing on strengths, and being available for discussion.
“What do workers want from their managers?” wrote The Wall Street Journal when they covered the study. “In a word, communication.” When workers don’t get that communication, they find it elsewhere. “There’s still plenty of truth in that old cliché: People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.”
So according to Gallup’s research, managers are the chief determiner of employee engagement and retention. That makes sense. But it’s when we apply those findings to the company’s new research that the intriguing implication emerges: if millennial disengagement is a problem, maybe we should look to managers for clues.
Sure enough, the management theory of millennial dissatisfaction checks out.
We know communication is important. People who get regular feedback from their managers are twice as likely to be engaged at work. Millennials, meanwhile, are working in a feedback desert.
According to “How Millennials Want to Work and Live,”
- Only 21% of millennials meet with their managers on a weekly basis.
- 19% receive feedback from their managers. 17% say it’s meaningful.
- 28% say their managers focus on their strengths—a powerful engagement-boosting managerial tactic.
No wonder millennials are disengaged.
Gallup found that one in two employees leave their job to get away from their manager. In a different study, the same proportion of millennials said they wanted to leave their company within the next year. Coincidence?
The problem is immediate, but so is the solution: if managers changed their behaviors to be those of better managers, maybe the epidemic of millennial disengagement would start to correct.
Finding good management
So, no, millennial employees aren’t just being moody. They’re disengaged because they need better managers.
Of course, that solution only goes so far. There’s still the question of where quality management comes from. Some people think it’s a matter of business acumen. Others think it’s emotional intelligence. Strangely, Gallup has also argued that managerial competence was caused by innate “talent” and even gender, a premise they derive from female managers’ higher engagement levels.
What’s more exciting—and more probable, to us Grovo Sapiens—is the idea that great management is simply the aforementioned set of skills and behaviors. Being available, helping to set goals, offering constructive feedback—all of that is likely different from the skills in which a star performer excelled and earned promotion in the first place. But there’s a science to great management, and anyone can learn it.
That’s why millennial disengagement represents an unprecedented chance for L&D to shine: it can be solved by great training. “In the next 10 to 15 years, we’re going to have the greatest transfer of knowledge that’s ever taken place,” organizational psychologist Chip Espinoza told Bloomberg in January, referring to the vast quantities of new managers that will be created. In training departments across every industry, developing great millennial leaders is going to define their next decade of work.
“Creating new millennial managers will represent the greatest transfer of information that’s ever taken place.”
It’s time to adjust
Millennials’ tectonic impact on the workplace is inevitable. This is what happens when the largest generation in history arms themselves with the most impactful technology ever created. The problem is, all that futurism puts millennials at a certain remove from the organizations they work for. Many of which are straining to update older ways of operating.
Businesses need to close the gap, and they need to do it soon. If they don’t, they’ll watch as a generation of employees switch jobs, tune out, and erode the management structures on which their organizations rely.
Luckily, we in L&D have data and ability that points the way forward. Organizations need to focus on developing better managers for—and among—their young people. Engagement will go up and take performance along with it. The time to get this right is now.
For more research on managing millennials, download our actionable guide Good Manager, Bad Manager: New Research on the Modern Management Deficit to improve your organization’s management development and a checklist of key behaviors of great managers.