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Apr 18

Can Millennials Hack It in a ‘Demanding’ Workplace?

by Kelly Riggs

The trophy generation.

Cupcakes. Spoiled. Entitled. Pampered.

Yes, Boomers love to pile on Millennials. Boomers, of course, lay claim to the last remnants of work ethic and the ability to overcome adversity.

They walked to school every day, don’t ya know. Uphill. Both ways. After hours of chores.

So, Boomers have little patience for the self-absorbed social media addict who wants to “hack” his/her way through life, avoiding the very appearance of work. It was little surprise, then, when a 2014 survey of 20,000 HR managers by Scout Exchange and Oracle HCM Users Group revealed that HR managers have serious doubts about the Millennial work ethic:

“Millennials’ work ethic is troublesome. Besides wanting to work remotely from Starbucks, millennials are often unwilling to put in more than 40 hours a week. Their propensity for leaving the office early — according to one respondent, for a 3 p.m. yoga class — is particularly problematic.”

And there was this by Sarah Green Carmichael, from an August 2016 Harvard Business Review article:

“Millennials don’t have a reputation as a hard-working generation. The caricature of the Millennial worker is more or less a cartoon of an entitled recipient of hundreds of plastic participation trophies who cares less about paying his dues at work and more about perks like flex-time, beer carts, and nap rooms.”

HERE, HERE!! says the Boomer.

This argument has been raging for awhile, with either side of the position presenting survey data to bolster their claims: Millennials are lazy. Nope. Actually, Millennials work harder than anyone. If you’d like a quick overview of the contrast in opinions, take a look at this recent article from Psychology Today: “Do Millennials Have a Lesser Work Ethic?.”

But I really don’t care about the endless debate about “Who works harder?” or “Are Millennials lazy?” What I do care about is whether or not a Millennial can work effectively in a high-performance work environment – what I would call a “demanding” work environment (actually, I would want to know that about any employee, wouldn’t you?).

The answer is NO.

WHOA!! Wait just a second! Don’t get your trophies in an uproar. The problem is that a “demanding” workplace, as currently defined, is a serious problem. In today’s work environment, a demanding workplace is one that expects employees to have a 24/7 devotion to the job and an umbilical cord to company email. It expects long hours and weekends at the expense of everything else. It presents consistent deadline pressures, and has created a self-imposed need to forego vacations (it’s called vacation shaming; everything needs a label these days).

That kind of “demanding” workplace is a serious problem. This 24/7 commitment to work is like a mirage in the desert – it looks really good when you’re thirsty, but it doesn’t produce what you desperately need. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Millennial or a Boomer or any other generation; in that work environment, there are only two kinds of employees – those who are currently burned out, and those who soon will be.

This kind of “demanding” has developed all kinds of side-effects. One, in particular, is called “work martyrdom” (again with the labels), an employee mindset that is some alchemic combination of fear, guilt, and narcissism. In a survey of 5,000 employees, it was – oddly enough, Boomers – those lightweight Millennials (!) who were more likely to agree with these four statements:

  • “No one else at my company can do the work while I’m away.”
  • “I want to show complete dedication to my company and job.”
  • “I don’t want others to think I am replaceable.”
  • “I feel guilty for using my paid time off.”

I’ll let the psychologists argue why Millennials feel that way. I’m much more concerned about the “demanding” workplace environment that creates that kind of “commitment.” More importantly, I’m concerned about the fallout of that kind of workplace.

In a recent survey of 600+ HR professionals in the United States, 95% of respondents said employee burnout is sabotaging workforce retention. According to this SHRM article, the demanding workplace that is defined by an expectation of 24/7 commitment and availability, is a runaway freight train:

“Employee burnout has reached epidemic proportions,” said Charlie DeWitt, vice president for business development at Kronos, which provides workforce management and human capital management cloud solutions and which commissioned the survey along with Future Workplace, an executive development firm. “While many organizations take steps to manage employee [burnout], there are far fewer efforts to proactively manage burnout. Not only can employee burnout sap productivity and fuel absenteeism, but, as this survey shows, it will undermine engagement and cause an organization’s top performers to leave the business altogether.”

The point should be clear. It doesn’t matter what generation you’re a part of, the typical “demanding” workplace is a recipe for disaster.

No one thrives in that kind of environment; not for very long.

The “Demanding” Workplace That Actually Works

That said, there is a demanding workplace in which Millennials can crush it, as well as Gen X and Boomer employees.

This demanding workplace is one where excellence is in the DNA of the culture: expectations for performance are high, the training to create that performance is readily available, employees accept ownership of their results and strive to improve, leaders are committed to coaching and development, and there is very little tolerance of sub-par performance.

The difference is focus. The first “demanding” workplace environment is focused on the manager. The second is focused on the employee. Both are demanding, but in completely different ways. One is demanding of time and the appearance of commitment; the other is demanding of growth and development. One creates stress and burnout. The other creates satisfaction and engagement. And great results, which, last time I checked, is the objective.

The truth is hard work doesn’t have to be accompanied by misery. According to research presented in a 2015 Fortune article, high-performance results and employee freedom are not mutually exclusive:

“In the 2011 book she co-authored, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile studied nearly 12,000 diary entries provided by 238 employees at seven companies and found that a high-time-pressure environment can lead to creative work when workers are focused on a single, high-impact goal.”

Here is where the research converges. Quite clearly, when employees have a sense of purpose and understand their value in the Big Picture, they can create incredible results. That is, if their manager is focused on creating the right kind of “demanding” work environment.

Think about this way: How effective can you be if, 1) you don’t know how you’re doing (feedback), 2) you don’t feel valued or respected for the effort (appreciation), or, 3) you don’t know where the finish line is (purpose)?

Working harder, for the sake of working harder, is just stupid. Good managers know that, and they know how to create a “demanding” workplace that is highly effective.

Can Millennials hack it in that kind of workplace?

Absolutely.

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About the Author

Kelly Riggs is a business performance coach and founder of the Business LockerRoom. A former national Salesperson of the Year and serial entrepreneur, Kelly is a recognized thought leader in the areas of sales, management leadership, and strategic planning. He serves clients ranging from small, privately held companies to Fortune 500 firms. Kelly has written two books: “1-on-1 Management™: What Every Great Manager Knows That You Don’t” and “Quit Whining and Start SELLING! A Step-by-Step Guide to a Hall of Fame Career in Sales.”