Something To Believe In: Employee Engagement Across the Generations

Some facts and figures for your consideration:

  • 33% of Americans are actively engaged at work
  • 16% are actively disengaged, ergo
  • 51% of employees are not engaged at work, and haven’t been for some time

Workplaces where employees are “highly engaged”:

  • have 59% lower turnover and a 17% increased productivity
  • have 10% growth in customer metrics and 20% increase in sales
  • are 21% more profitable than organizations with low employee engagement

Employee engagement seems like a new and buzzy workplace jargon term, but it’s actually been around since the early 1990’s (which for us GenX-ers still seems like only 10 years ago). With numbers like those above, it’s no wonder why employee engagement has become something of a holy grail for organizations. Leadership launches initiative after initiative, workers roll their eyes and the needle doesn’t move. Engaging a workforce that is comprised of three (or more) generations—each with varying levels of engagement–seems pretty daunting. How do you do it?

Most Engaged: Boomers

According to Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report, Baby Boomers are the most engaged generation at work. But before you start handing out high-fives, they are also the most actively disengaged. Active disengagement means that not only are these folks unhappy at work, but they go out of their way to express that unhappiness through words, attitudes and actions. Why the extremes? One theory is that with the massive changes that organizations have been through due to technology and an influx of younger workers, Boomers are less secure about their future in the workplace. At the same time, they are the least likely group to be seeking new employment (a measure of engagement) as they value stability and security at this late stage of their careers. They’re going to stick around as long as they can.

Least Engaged: Millennials

Oh, those selfish, entitled, job-hopping Millennials. Of course they are the least engaged, you are thinking. However, they also happen to be the least actively disengaged. They may not be happy, but at least they’re not undermining. And truthfully, they kinda have a legit beef: Millennials have the highest unemployment rate (40%) and underemployment rates (51%) of any generation, meaning that if they are fortunate enough to be employed at all, it may be at a job that isn’t helping them move all that far forward in life. Many have one foot out the door: two-thirds of Millennials plan to leave their current organization by 2020, and 25% of those hope to leave within one year.

Stuck In The Middle: Generation X

Among the three major generations, Generation X employee engagement levels fall smack dab in the middle. Yawn.

Pop quiz time: Which generation says they “need to have a sense of purpose or meaning” in their work in order to feel fully engaged?

Answer: Baby Boomers.

And Millennials.

And Generation X.

That’s right. Each generation desires the same outcome—to feel that their work matters and that they are contributing to the greater good. For some, it means working for an organization whose mission is to “make the world a better place”. For many others, it means they want to know that the work they do everyday directly impacts the health and success of their workplace—regardless of industry.

The key to increasing engagement isn’t rolling out yet another short-term employee engagement initiative or internal communications campaign. It’s creating a culture of ownership so employees at all levels can feel confident that their work matters. To do this, organizations need to:

  • Have clearly defined values: values are the principles that guide the decisions and behaviors as an organization delivers on its mission and aspires to its vision. To have any hope of increasing engagement, employees have to be on board with the values and employers’ actions need to align with them.
  • Seek input for strategic planning: while it’s not always possible to have employees at all levels in on the ground floor of strategic planning, leaders can routinely seek feedback on the plan in draft form. Lower level employees can help leaders identify blinds spots, and may be more likely to willingly execute the plan if they have a hand in its creation.
  • Involve employees in departmental goal setting: again, your “boots on the ground” folks are well-positioned to make sure departmental/unit goals are specific and achievable.
  • Align personal outcomes with strategic goals: ideally, individual performance goals should trace all the way up to and align with the goals set forth in the strategic plan.

If your organization is looking to improve employee engagement, get involved in the process. Talk about a sense of purpose and meaning—how about being a part of a culture change (large or small, depending on where your workplace is on the points above) that could improve your company’s bottom line? That’s something to believe in.

Pragmatic Leadership and Generation X

Womp Womp.

debbie-downer

GenX: ever feel like this at work?

For those of you who are familiar with Saturday Night Live’s* “Debbie Downer”
character, you know “womp womp” is the sound that’s made after Debbie says something to totally
bring the room down and make the optimistic and enthusiastic people around her
uncomfortable. Relatable?

For many GenX-ers in the workplace, it feels like we’re the ones crushing everybody’s dreams. When Generation X came of age, we were labeled as pessimistic and cynical. But as mentioned in this post, the blinders were off for Generation X. We saw things as they were and it shaped our worldview. We learned how to assess situations and figured out how to accomplish goals within the framework. It made us pragmatic.

It’s easy to mistake good old fashioned GenX pragmatism for negativism in the workplace, especially when we’re sandwiched in between two generations known for their idealism. Boomers have always been idealistic—remember, this was the generation that was going to change the world. They continue to be defined by their sense of purpose. Boomers who are in leadership roles often want to do what’s best for the organization, but may forget (or choose not) to seek input from lower levels of the organization, perhaps because when Boomers came of age in the workplace, nearly all decisions were made top-down.

Millennials (the children of late Boomers, let’s not forget) have a similar mindset. They want a sense of purpose in their work. Their desire for a “flatter” organization structure is tied to the belief that ideas are equal regardless of the source, and that everyone is a major stakeholder. Millennials believe that they themselves can impact sweeping change.

And here comes Generation X, appearing to crap on everyone. We’re the ones telling our Boomer bosses why that decision that was made without proper input from lower levels has some devils in the details and needs to be modified. Our Millennial subordinates (or peers) walk away pissed when we tell them that their proposal for a new product can’t be explored right now because it is off budget cycle and also will need at least six months more development time. Womp womp.

Pragmatists focus on how to get things done. They can see the big picture but also potential barriers that could get in the way of success, and they tend to want to spend energy overcoming the roadblocks. Often times this can look like micromanaging, but in actuality, pragmatic leaders are as goal-focused as idealistic ones.

What can we GenX leaders do to repair our sullied reputations? First, we can sell the idea of pragmatism as a virtue. Pragmatism favors action, and action fuels progress. Hey idealists—we want what you want. We’re not stonewalling or stalling. We’re anticipating. We’re figuring stuff out on the front end so we’re not cleaning up a mess later on.

Second, we can embrace idealism. Wait, what? If there is downside to pragmatism, it is that it tends to exist within a current state. A dose of idealism is necessary to envision that future state. Idealism and pragmatism together fuel innovation.

So the next time a Boomer leader shares the “next big thing” that the senior staff came up with, or when a Millennial on your team presents you with her third new idea of the day, respond in the spirit of collaboration. “This is some great thinking. Let’s put our heads together and see if we can make this happen.”

* Points for you if you understood the Debbie Downer reference without explanation. Knowledge of pop culture is another calling card of Generation X. More about that in a future post.

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia

Meet Generation X in 2017: the Jan Brady of the workplace.

Comparing Generation X to “middle children” is not a reach. Generationally speaking, they’re right behind the Baby Boomers—many of whom are in leadership roles and still highly value seniority, hierarchy and productivity as tenets of a successful workplace. Coming up right behind us are the Millennials–the young upstarts who seem to be causing organizations everywhere to reshape their corporate cultures in order to attract and retain this coveted bunch for their fresh ideas and their tech savvy.

Then there’s Generation X: people born between 1965 and 1980 and often described as disaffected, cynical slackers. But they’ve grown up. Many went to college (more than any generation before them), climbed the ladder and are raising families. They are slackers no more. And looking back, maybe they never were.

Disaffected and cynical? Perhaps, but not without reason. Looking back, it’s now widely accepted that GenX was the least protected generation in history. Divorce rates in the U.S. peaked in 1981. They were the first “latch-key kids.” They grew up with government scandals from Watergate to Iran-Contra to Monica. Space shuttles exploded and nuclear plants melted down. They saw reality and it bit.

But they dealt with it. They learned and they grew from it. What might have been viewed as cynicism in the past is really pragmatism today. GenX is as open and eager for change as Millennials, but they have the experience to frame it within the context of what’s actually possible. They value authenticity because they can handle it. They define success in realistic terms.

Among Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials, GenX is the smallest cohort at 65 million, compared to 77 million Boomers and 83 million Millennials. And although many Boomers have vacated the workplace, they are not retiring at the projected rates, either because they can’t afford to or don’t wish to. GenX got in line and began waiting for the baton to be passed, but a dot com bust and a Great Recession has that line moving slower than many GenX managers wanted or expected.

Millennials began entering the workforce at the same time as meteoric advances in technology fundamentally changed how many organizations did business. Companies looked to their younger staff and their comfort with technology as the sherpas that would guide them through the shift to an increasingly digital world. Along with their technical expertise, Millennials brought ideas and expectations that are rocking corporate cultures to their cores. They don’t like rigid organizational structures, they want work that they find personally interesting and fulfilling and they expect rapid advancement. And because those things are more important to Millennials than a paycheck, if they don’t get them they will leave.

So where does that leave GenX employees today? Pretty much smack in the middle, perhaps outnumbered but definitely not outgunned.

At this moment, Generation X is perfectly poised to take their rightful place as organizational leaders, and it’s not just because they are bridging the gap between two generations who have radically different approaches to work. The characteristics of Generation X are the hallmarks of successful leadership–pragmatism, empathy, loyalty, innovation—and highly valued in a competitive environment where organizations must adapt quickly to market forces that shift beneath their feet.

Like all attention-seeking middle children, it’s time for GenX-ers to distinguish themselves from their Boomer and Millennial work siblings and start asserting their own identity as the organizational leaders who can successfully navigate an increasingly complex business environment. Each week at TheGenXManager.com, we’ll discuss how to do just that, while examining the influence Generation X continues to exert on the workplace, community and society.