Matters Column

For long-term success, consider norm deviation

June 23, 2017
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Ever hear anyone say, “What’s wrong with kids these days”? It is usually an older person when they are making observations about a younger generation’s behavior or dress in a social setting. However, we frequently hear a similar comment when one adult observes or interacts with someone who thinks about things in a different way. It is clear they are concerned because “these people” are not following the norm, or at least the norm with which the speaker is comfortable.

It is really surprising when you begin to examine a few things that were of concern to adults in the not too distant past. It was outrageous when those Beatles came from England with the long hair, and Elvis played the hip moving rock and roll. Society was going to hell in short order. I just recently learned that it is illegal to dance in New York City. A law put on the books in the 1930s to stop the spread of Jazz. There are many efforts to stop deviations, because we fear some behavior will upset the norms. This is not to say we should not be concerned with behavior and appearances. What we need to concentrate on is making sure that our reaction is proportional to the circumstances, or maybe, we might even embrace the change.

Managing the norms

Unfortunately, many people share their opinion without a thought about the civility of their comments or the impact on others. This happens a lot on social media, especially if the commenting person remains anonymous. These intentional insulters, “trolls,” probably bring little value to society. However, the people who are concerned with the norms in an organizational setting might want to think about how they view and react to those nonconforming individuals they encounter. They often have the power to stifle or bring great change to an organization.

A good starting place is to work from existing policies and procedures. It also is important to be sure these guidelines are in line with current laws and regulations. Organization culture may also play a role in establishing the norm. However, a periodic review of the norm needs to be done as things change. Making sure the HR department stays on top of these items and handles them consistently across the organization is essential to stay out of hot water — that is to avoid discrimination against people in a “protected class,” or offending or denigrating select minority employee groups. In general, these discussions center on aligning employees behind practices that make sense to accomplish the desired organizational goals and, hopefully, create a positive work environment.

Millennials: the norm busters

But now we have a new behavior matter that is likely to be more difficult resolve. It’s called being a “millennial.” This group of employees is unique in that it is not protected or in many instances not a minority. In fact, it will be a dominate employee category at most organizations in the not too distant future.

So, why do we raise a question about this group? First, let’s define the group so we understand whom we are talking about. The definition is a little fluid and changes some depending on the situation, but generally, it is people who were born between 1983 and 1995. They are usually children of the baby boomer generation. A generation that is perceived to be “hard workers with their nose to the grindstone”— very solid and conservative in behavior and values, aligned with the business owners who are expected to support the employees through long careers at one or two organizations. A substantial contrast with the millennials.

This younger group causes the business owners all sorts of consternation, because they don’t commit to the same values, are more self-centered than organization- or institutional-centered. They value and expect, from the start, a balance between work demands and other interests, activities and friends. These other focused perspectives drive behavior that involve making the world better, more liberal politics, cause them to want involvement on the big picture without working through the steps. The older generation believed you had to earn that situation over time.

As a result, organization leaders see them as not fitting the norm and a problem of management. Some of the stats show that 60 percent of this group, which now outnumbers the baby boomers, stays on the job less than three years. How management reacts is perhaps understandable and it is often quite negative. However, within three years, they will comprise over 50 percent of the work force.

Managing millennials

Trying to use only established practices to manage the situation is likely to be a lost cause; they have the factor of time and aging on their side. So, what solutions should be considered? The ones I’ve actually heard, more frequently than I would have expected, are: 1) “I won’t hire them at all.” 2) “I’ll put them in select positions where the behaviors and turnover won’t affect the business too much.” It doesn’t take too much analysis to see these are rather shortsighted strategies. Another option I’ve heard that may be slightly better is too emphasize, “Here is the work I need done and once you’ve met that goal, you can do what you want, e.g., play on the internet or pursue personal goals, etc.” This tends to cause friction with those who work the whole period or take on other things when the main job is done. It requires a very well-managed organization culture to make this work.

With some forethought, there are more meaningful and longer-lasting strategies that might be more beneficial to all concerned. It does require some analysis, planning and training of both workers and managers. You need to start with the existing workforce, and then when the plan is organized, you integrate the new staff into the processes. The cultural change can be managed quite easily, utilizing a solid on-boarding process. It also requires a planned process of follow-up analysis, to make adjustments as the circumstances evolve due to the new way of doing business, because you will not be able to anticipate all the variables and support actions that will be required.

Maybe ‘these people’ are OK

The key is to be very careful about understanding and defining the primary objective(s) then focus on how they can be achieved utilizing the coming methodologies, technologies and social patterns that will come into play with the workforce you will employ. Be sure the folks who are helping with the analysis have a good handle on the elements involved; keep in mind you might even use a few of these weird people they call millennials. Once you know what to plan on, emphasis should be on transition matters. A purposeful and staged methodology is far better than a forced deadline strategy. You might be surprised that the traits of these people could make for a more successful organization.

Ardon Schambers is principal at P3HR Consulting & Services.

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