“I would like you to run a class on soft skills for my millennials, because they are creating problems for us.”
This statement is often how the conversation starts when a business is looking to engage my services. I usually receive a laundry list of complaints: Employees don’t show up to work on time; they have a lack of curiosity, a lack of communication, no initiative, and, ultimately, a lack of respect for the way an organization works and the people who have given many years of service to it.
The obvious route is to train these individuals to be great employees based on what rendered success in the past. If this approach worked, however, then we would not see an issue with attracting and retaining great talent. The tried-and-true methods of the past are no longer the answer, but the good news is that your answers are already within your organization.
Generational Differences in the Workplace
I started my research on generational differences in 2007 in an attempt to identify and bridge the gaps between generations in the workplace. What I found was a strong presence of what Larry and Meagan Johnson describe in their book “Generations Inc.” as “generational myopia,” where we see the positive in our own generation but the negative in others.
A perfect example of this phenomenon came about in a recent conversation between a baby boomer manager and a millennial manager. The baby boomer said that her younger report often challenged her thinking. “She kept asking why I do it that way, or why I wouldn’t consider another way. I just needed her to do it the way I asked. I felt disrespected to have her constantly questioning my judgement.”
The young millennial manager spoke up: “I totally get where she is coming from. If I knew how you arrived at the decision, then I could learn and organize myself around meeting what needs to happen.”
The “Aha!” moment for both of them was realizing the differences in their perception of what it means to question authority. Where the baby boomer was taught not to do so, the millennial was encouraged to ask questions for further understanding. What one perceived as inquisitive learning, the other perceived as a disrespectful jab.
The aforementioned “laundry list” of problems is often derived from this perceived lack of soft skills, which, in turn, reflects a lack of understanding.
A New Generation of Leadership
This example is one of many perceptions based on a narrative that lead leaders to fall back to soft skills training. The digital age has changed how we work and collaborate. The name of the soft skills game is adaptability, curiosity and cultivating new networks.
Trust, listening, questioning and giving feedback are a few of the traits that have always been the foundation of soft skills development. However, the whole organization, not just its younger workers, needs to adapt. To do so, organizations need to adopt three behaviors.
1. It Starts With the Leaders
Existing leaders (including millennials) need to shift their thinking on leadership training to reflect fresh and transformative behaviors rather than current, outdated systems. Only 36% of millennials surveyed by Deloitte feel they are prepared for “Industry 4.0.” Older generations serve as an amazing treasure trove of mistakes and lived experiences to share, and organizations can bridge the gaps between the generations by sharing that wealth of knowledge.
Teaching young managers how to effectively listen and give feedback will build trust with their peers – but only so far as those behaviors are supported and nurtured in the organization. Everyone must be on the same page in learning and supporting the same soft skill behaviors, so employees can absorb and immediately apply them.
2. Invest in Leadership Development for All
All too often, organizations focus time, money and resources on a smaller subset of leadership. In the modern economy, organizations need to develop soft skill leadership behaviors from the employee’s first moments and demonstrate a commitment to investing in the development of these skills over time.
Deloitte’s millennial survey demonstrates that organizations that demonstrate an investment in offering leadership development have a higher retention rate than those that don’t:
3. Engage Young Leaders to Solve Problems
How do we learn humility? You probably didn’t learn it from a 90-minute e-learning class or from something someone explained to you. We learn the nuances of humility from experience.
We can say the same about soft skills. The traditional model of knowledge transfer and application serves its purpose for repetitive hard skills. For soft skills, a multi-modal approach is necessary, as is the need to remove learners’ expectation of what they will actually learn.
In my research, nearly all of the millennial leaders I interviewed were not part of the strategy and planning process for the future of leadership skills. Engage your best minds in the current leadership development models as facilitators, resources and mentors to your younger leaders to solve the problems of the future.
Fostering the New Generation
The current generations will soon be handing off their organizations, jobs and lives’ work off to the younger generations. At the root of this work are soft skills like communication, building trust, giving feedback, a strong work ethic and pragmatic problem-solving, which are critical for organizational effectiveness.
As we change, the underlying understanding of how these soft skills are lived, interpreted and applied changes as well. Generation is but one lens of interpretation.
We are in the midst of fostering a new generation of leadership. If we give each other the gift of space to explore, to be curious and to implement these three major behavior changes, we will develop strong soft skills across all generations.