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A Workforce Challenge

March/April, 2011

Getting the generations to pull together in the workplace

Atypical is a great way to describe both my business philosophies and my company. Thirty-two years ago, I founded BEGNEAUD Manufacturing Inc. with only one employee working in a small welding shop. Today, the company is a multi-million dollar precision sheet metal operation with 45 employees.

I have made two major discoveries as a business owner. The first is my perception that the business community is too focused on the creation of profit. The second is that the preoccupation with profit preempts concern about the importance of creating new value.

I am proud to say that in 32 years of business, I have maintained a focus (on my principles) by adding value without just watching the bottom line. Of course we have bills to pay, but our greater concern has always been how to help solve problems for our customers and add value by meeting and/or exceeding their expectations. We have always been dedicated to helping our customers, employees and vendors be more successful and, in the process, we have earned success for ourselves as well. I certainly am not opposed to increasing revenue and earning profits, but I have realized that when new value is generated for the benefit of others, money is earned as a result.

As a business owner, I firmly believe that as we develop our character, we are of greater benefit to those with whom we work. For that reason, I am determined to lead a company that never stops learning and applying the principles learned.

To accomplish this goal we use a “reach and teach” method of guidance that incorporates hard and soft skill instruction and leadership training. For years we have invested heavily in training and the incorporation of lean manufacturing principles and thinking in our enterprise activities.

In addition to internal resources, our dedication to training has extended to the use of industry-recognized professional consultants to help guide
us in our continuous improvement efforts.

A few years ago, I believed that we were about to make a breakthrough in our company. We were progressing well with our training and promoting every effort to be loyal, transparent and honest with one another.

Despite our efforts, there still seemed to be a disconnect between employees. Like many companies, the workforce of BEGNEAUD is comprised of four cultural generations—the Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y. The divergent perspectives, work ethics, attitudes, motivations and preferences of these four generations of employees have changed the dynamics of the manufacturing workplace, making it much more challenging to sustain effective communication and productive working relationships with colleagues.

I believe that this issue is a challenge not only at my company but for many other business owners. One of the ways we have attacked the issue is by leveraging the expertise of specialists such as Dr. Billie Blair, president and CEO of Change Strategists Inc. I would like to turn the remainder of this article over to her in hopes that she can assist me and others in similar situations to better understand the needs and distress of colleagues in an age-diverse workforce.

Billie Blair

I am an organizational psychologist who, along with the other professionals at Change Strategists Inc., has the distinct privilege of working with corporate executives and their boards around the globe. In this role, we see first-hand evidence of the pressing and current dilemmas of businesses. None is of more concern to company managers than the issues relating to the entrance of the Millenials into the workforce.

Difficulties in displaying work-appropriate behaviors actually began with the entry into the workforce of Gen-Xers. The phenomenon of “specialness” that surrounds the last two generations has been explained by the fact that, with reliable birth control and similar birth rate measures, the last two generations have been the “most wanted” in American history.

To cite one small example, after their arrival many members of these generations were driven around in minivans with signs declaring “Caution: Baby on Board.” As a result of many such acts denoting “specialness,” they have come to think of themselves as what one recent humorist described as something like the last bottle of soda pop in the desert.

These generations are the products of school systems that worked to build high self esteem to “ensure that children would be successful” and underscored these “esteem building” measures by acts such as awarding a trophy not just to the winners but to everyone who participated in an event. So, in essence, these are generations who have been highly protected from the realities of the world and, in particular, the requirements of a workplace.

One of our corporate clients believed that he was doing the community a service by hiring college students as interns this past summer. Each intern was assigned tasks that were beneficial to his or her learning as well as useful for the company. One of those tasks consisted of the data entry of recent contacts made at a sales event—critical information that was to be used for follow-up with potential customers. When the student’s supervisor dropped by to check on progress, he found the student online, surfing the web. Asked how the work was going, the intern said, “Oh, I found it boring and dropped it.”

This is not an isolated event and provides sound evidence of serious “disconnects” of understanding between those currently managing companies and today’s workers.

Newer workers tend to lack the foundational concepts of what is needed and expected in the workplace, and most employers are at a loss about how to proceed to bridge this gap.

In my recent book VALUE + EMPLOYEES AS VALUERS, I write about the need to engage all employees in a new effort to better understand and value the company where they work. This need will become even more critical as a larger proportion of the workforce is made up of the Gen-X and Millenial generations because, for the past 25 years, we have drifted away from the valuing compacts that once existed between The Matures (the generation born between 1926 and 1945) and their employers.

Valuing and acknowledging the worth of a place of employment was also a practice, for the most part, of the Baby Boomer generation (those workers born between 1946 and 1965). Today, as greater numbers of Gen-Xers and Millenials enter the workforce, employers are experiencing a set of characteristics generalizable to these workers:

• A sense of specialness, with belief in that specialness rarely challenged.

• Low frustration/tolerance levels, leading them to become easily bored with tasks and prone to disregard those not of immediate interest.

• An organizational disconnect; that is, a lack of understanding of the organization’s culture and of their roles and obligations.

• Personal interaction challenges, including low interpersonal skills, that result from childhood/environmental technological influences.

• Socio-cultural blurring—an inability to predict the effects and outcomes of their actions.

• Reactive challenges—a tendency toward bluntness that could be interpreted by older workers as rudeness, but which is actually another manifestation of self-centeredness.

• Overt manifestation, which is a tendency toward persistent verbalization of perceived grievances.

These general characteristics constitute a potent (and sometimes toxic) complement of “personality traits” that must be redirected and reoriented if the employee is to be successful.

The upside of these two generations is that they are typically highly trained and killful, adroit at tasks that are of interest, and persistent and dedicated to chosen “causes.”

The challenge for employers is to engage the talent and the potential of these individuals and to reform the dysfunctional socio-cultural attributes into more appropriate behaviors that can be used and tolerated in the workplace. This kind of reformation is not an easy task, and it is not one that most employers can accomplish without professional support.

But the strategies needed to transform psychologically ingrained and inappropriate work behaviors result in a process that will salvage talented generations and bring about the changes necessary to ensure successful and workplace-valuing employees.

In this article, we have discussed current generational challenges and the need for employers to embrace a proactive response. The solution to these challenges lies in adopting an intra-organizational process of focused and incisive effort. To ensure continued organizational viability, it is of critical importance that employers assign highest priority to resolving the challenge. The strategies used produce tremendous benefits in addition to ensuring growth in organizational capacity.

In future articles we will describe a prescriptive, step-by-step methodology that is combined with skillful interventions to promote procedural refinements. We call this process the value-plus approach. We will be discussing the approach in greater detail in later articles as well as the opportunities that it offers for instituting the valuing workforce. ›