How to Employ the Why Generation

Posted January 2, 2020 by Mark Perna

Mark’s byline “How to Employ the Why Generation” was published in the June 2018 issue of Talent Management Excellence (page 32).

Today’s young people are among the most studied generations to date—and yet we still don’t seem to understand them or what motivates them in the workplace. Some 55 percent of young people report feeling unengaged at work. Perhaps even more alarming, some 66 percent expect to leave their current positions by 2020. That’s a cataclysmic shift in workforce development, that a full two-thirds of the largest working population are planning to leave their current jobs. Why do we have this disconnect?

Many employers struggle with a negative view of the younger generations, but after more than 20 years as an education and performance consultant across North America, my perspective is resoundingly positive. The young people of the Why Generation are exactly the way we as parents, educators, and society have reared them—and that’s not a bad thing.

Contrary to popular opinion, I believe that today’s young people have it within themselves to become the next Greatest Generation. With an inborn curiosity, they are one of the most intelligent, resourceful, and pit-bull-like generations we’ve ever seen. When they want something, they will move at warp speed to get it, with an uncanny ability to attain impressive levels of laser focus. They generously support the causes they believe in, despite the record college debt burden they bear. Their incredible passion makes them capable of outstanding performance; what they sometimes lack is the purpose that drives it all forward. And that’s why they are always asking why.

The Why Generation

This core trait has led me to dub both the Millennial Generation and Generation Z ‘the Why Generation.’ When told to complete a task, they often want to know the purpose behind it and why it matters. To older generations like the Baby Boomers (to which I belong), their questioning may come across as insubordination or a challenge to authority, but in general, nothing could be further from their intention.

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In most cases, they simply want and need to understand why things are done a certain way because it lends credibility to their participation. If they see no logical reason for the effort, they will not put in a great deal of energy. They want their contribution to mean something. In fact, they want to determine for themselves if there is a better way to do it and if there is something they can add to make it better for everyone.

That’s why it’s crucial to examine our view of younger workers and the workplace paradigms we may be taking for granted. Do we see them as mere cogs in the machine, hired to perform a certain limited function, or as creative collaborators with a valuable contribution to make to the big picture? Collaboration is how we will tap into the talent of the future. We have to let go of the employment model of the past, where the “because I said so” dynamic largely governed workplace interactions. That approach doesn’t work with the Why Generation.

What Collaboration Looks Like

So what does it look like to view younger workers as collaborators rather than cogs? I offer five constructive steps that organizations across North America are implementing to make this shift.

  1. Start answering their why. Don’t feel threatened or challenged when they ask for reasons; instead, give them a complete and clear answer. Along with satisfying their need for information, you will show them they are valued within the organization. They’ll feel validated and will go back to their work thinking about the answer they received. This opens the door for them to put their creativity into action and come back with an innovation or refinement to your existing process, which benefits everyone.
  2. Show them respect first. While older generations tended to respect authority figures upfront without question, today’s young people require respect be shown to them first before they will give it. As soon as they feel they are being treated with marked respect, they quickly return that respect. The terminology of “superiors” and “inferiors” is outdated, and so is the authoritarian dynamic it describes. A truly collaborative mindset views all workers as individuals who are simply at different stages in their career journey. All have unique and valuable contributions to make, and that’s worthy of respect.
  3. Encourage group collaboration. Because they are always in search of fresh and interesting experiences, today’s young people prefer group interactions over one-on-one interactions which afford less chance of new experiences. It’s one of the reasons that the younger generations tend to work so well as part of a team dynamic. There are incredible opportunities for sharing ideas, sparking dialogue, and mentoring them in group settings. Group collaboration does not exclude the possibility or power of individual interactions, but this insight into their preference for groups can be helpful when seeking to maximize results with young people.
  4. Create positive formal structure. Many elements in the lives of Why Generation members have been structured and orchestrated to achieve the best experience possible, so structure is extremely helpful when they move into the workforce. Clearly delineated steps in the ladder of success are critical to today’s young people. They want to know and understand the curbs, what they can and can’t do, and how to do it most effectively. That’s why, when onboarding new hires, sharing “tips for success” is a much more productive approach than “these are the rules.” Positioning advice and direction through the positive lens of tips for success creates a buy-in and respect for what it truly takes to be successful.
  5. Raise the expectations. Yes, you read that right. Our expectations are the first measure by which our young people judge their own capabilities. In effect, we tell them what’s possible through our assumptions. Lowering our expectations and standards will not inspire them to achieve anything beyond that status quo. Making it too easy to reach the next goal renders that next goal meaningless. Far from expecting less, we can actually set the bar higher for their performance. Young people want to believe, they want to belong, they want to give back, and yes, they want to meet high performance expectations. I can’t say it enough: they are an incredible generation. They just need to see the goal, buy into their role in achieving it, and share in their organization’s mission of accomplishing something worthwhile.
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These practical steps can help drive younger workers to greater performance and propel the organization forward as everyone pulls in the same direction. Because a straightforward authoritarian structure no longer produces the best results in today’s workplace, recruiting and retaining the best young talent means gaining their buy-in to the big-picture goals of the organization. It’s not only about the salary anymore; today’s young people demand a workplace that stimulates their creativity, values their contribution, and challenges them to exceed their limits as they work toward a shared vision they believe in. Then and only then will they will be motivated to deliver their fullest effort to the tasks entrusted to them.

With remarkable intelligence, resourcefulness, imagination, focus, and passion, the Why Generation is poised to solve the challenges facing our workforce today. We just need to answer their why.

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About The Author
Mark Perna
Mark C. Perna is an international speaker and bestselling author. He also serves as CEO of TFS Results, a strategic consulting firm at the forefront of the national paradigm shift in education and workforce development.
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