Can we all just get along?

Author: 
Paul Nolan

Managing in today’s multigenerational work force can be a minefield. Lindsey Pollak says the secret to success is like remixing a classic song.

SMM: Explain why your book on managing a multigenerational work force is called “The Remix.”

Pollak: I was trying to come up with a metaphor for how to mix workplace generations in a positive, inclusive and also fair way. A remix is when you take a classic song and you don’t say the classic version is wrong or bad or should go away, but you acknowledge that by adding something new, you create something different, interesting and good. You’re not saying that one is better or worse; you’re saying that together, they form something new.

I interviewed a bunch of DJs about remixes for my book and several of them told me their secret when they have an empty dance floor at a party or wedding is to play a remix, because the older people will recognize the song and come dance, and the younger people will recognize the new version and come dance. Everybody feels included together.

SMM: There are negative stereotypes about all generations, but you say that millennials have come under intense “shaming” and it needs to stop.

Pollak: Every generation has been shamed or criticized to some extent, but because of the internet and social media, there are so many new venues to criticize and shame millennials. They are labeled as entitled, narcissistic or having a lack of work ethic. I have not seen it going away. It doesn’t serve anybody’s good. It makes some millennials feel bad and possibly discouraged in their careers or your organization. Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. work force. If you’re a salesperson, you’re probably selling to millennials all day long. Why would you criticize your colleagues and your customers in that way?

SMM: You also note that millennials are not a particularly trusting group. What does this mean for the work force and managers of millennials?

Pollak: The statistic is about trust of strangers, which is an important distinction. Under 50% of all adults feel they can trust a stranger, so that’s depressing and problematic – and something that we need to deal with as a society in general. But millennials have the worst rate. Only 19% of millennials feel that a stranger can be trusted. What that says to me is that their trust needs to be earned. In this world, where there is so much lack of trust, particularly online, nothing is more important than the human connection between two people. As a salesperson or as a manager of other people, the relationships that you build with one-on-one meetings or breaking bread together… the remix here is that old-school basics of how to build a relationship are more important than ever even as we become more digital and more global.

SMM: You state that employers have to make their companies attractive to multiple generations. What does that mean?

Pollak: It’s important to promote that you are a multigenerational workplace. The faces on your website of your employees should be multigenerational. The people who represent your company at job fairs or who recruit on campuses should be multigenerational. Being mindful of the people who do your recruiting and being mindful of the venues in which you recruit is a way of signaling that you are open to a multigenerational talent pool.

SMM: You also say the corporate ladder no longer exists, and that in its place is mobility and possibility. Explain that.

Pollak: I have yet to meet someone under the age of 30 who thinks they are going to work their way up the ladder at a single company. It’s not because young people don’t want it; it’s because corporations stopped offering it. Sheryl Sandberg talks about “jungle gym careers,” where you’re climbing in all different directions. Companies that promote the fact that they are an employer that will develop you in whatever direction becomes important, that’s what is appealing to workers of all generations. Training and retraining – the buzzword is “reskilling.” Millennials say they value training and development more than money in a lot of cases.

SMM: Are employers reskilling workers with the knowledge that, in many cases, those skills will benefit some other employer?

Pollak: That’s the classic conundrum of training, right? What if we train them and they leave? Well, what if you don’t train them and they stay?

SMM: You state that generational differences are most acutely experienced through communication issues. How does this affect how one manages?

Pollak: This is closely related to the changing role of managers. We all are human beings, and we’re far more alike than we are different. That said, the times in which you grow up and the times in which you enter the workplace have a tremendous impact on your expectations of how your manager will treat you and how people will communicate with each other. A Baby Boomer or even a Generation Xer likely grew up with leaders and teachers and parents who lived by the philosophy that you do as I say. We didn’t question that. Millennials and Gen Zs have grown up in a time of social media, where if I don’t like what my professor said in class, I can give that professor a bad rating on Ratemyprofessors.com. There is simply more of an expectation and more experience with conversations and communication being two-way, even with people in powerful leadership positions.

When I walk into a workplace as an Xer, I expect my boss to tell me what I do and I do it. If I want more feedback from my boss, I might want it, but I’m probably not going to ask for it. If I’m a millennial or a Gen Z, and I don’t get the feedback I want, it doesn’t occur to me not to speak up and say, “I want more feedback.” I think millennials and Gen Zs want exactly what previous generations have always wanted; they just are coming of age at a time when it’s more accessible to ask for what you want. I think this makes managers be better managers.

SMM: You make the interesting point that millennials are now managing people who are older than they are. What are some of the situations that may present and what should both sides be aware of?

Pollak: Thirty-eight percent of people in the workforce report to a boss who is younger than they are. That’s a huge change. A lot of people have no problem having a boss who is younger than they are, so don’t make it an issue until it becomes one. For younger leaders, it’s particularly important to focus on listening and spending one-on-one time with each person they manage. It goes back to that statistic on trust. Actually spending face-to-face time and making the time to listen to employees is critical to building that trust. You also have to have direct conversations about how you’re going to communicate with each other. We cannot make assumptions. For example, if you are a young boss and you’re communicating with an employee who is not comfortable with technology, you have to talk about it and figure that out. [Harvard Business School Professor] Michael Watkins talks about having the “style conversation,” in which the burden is on the manager to have the conversation with each person on communications preferences.

SMM: What have we not discussed that you feel is important to note?

Pollak: I think physical workspace is a hot topic – particularly open offices, because they are so prominent. I do not believe that is a generational preference. I think it is a personal preference. I want to dispel the myth that young people want to sit in open offices and older people want closed doors. That has not been my experience. The best way to manage the physical workspace of a multigenerational team is to create options for people. It’s a topic that can cause a lot of conflict if you don’t get it right.