Millennials: a Shiny Face on All Behaviour

Untitled Photo Courtesy of Bina. (=)
Untitled photo courtesy of Bina.

How much can we talk about people without talking about people data?  Not very much, it appears.  Those dealing with employees of all types must know more about their hearts and souls than ever before.  And if you make one false move with a data point, your most brilliant philosophical insights can be taken sideways.

In December 2016, author Simon Sinek was interviewed on Inside Quest on the topic of Millennials.  I am a big fan of Sinek, having changed my approach to work based on his influential TED talk on how to Start With Why. The Inside Quest interview (20 minutes long) is also great because it covers many key topics.

Sinek posted a follow-up video days later to clarify much of what he had to say.  There was a dramatic change in body language.  In the first video he seemed calm and knowledgeable.  However, in the follow-up video (from what appears to be his dining-room) he is a little sheepish, making clarifications, imploring people to keep the conversation alive with constructive criticism.  The first interview had gone a tad viral and he got a lot of feedback.

During the Inside Quest interview he made piercing social criticism and attributed a lot of what was happening in society to the experience and context of millennials.  In what should be described as “a good problem to have,” he understated the importance of his critique.  You see, the things he said were true for many of us regardless of generation.

His critique?  We must learn to wait.  We must put time and years into our greatest accomplishments.  We are lonely because we are embarrassed to talk about our disappointments and frustrations.  We need to talk through our difficulties.  We must aspire to engage in sincere conversations.  We must help others.  Look up from your phone and be human.

In my opinion these are all massive issues for workplace culture.  Managers are struggling to learn how to compel their staff to work hard without being coercive or demeaning.  Everyone who takes benefits costs seriously is now hyper-sensitive to whether employees can talk openly about mental health and wellbeing.  Executives worried about people quitting are stumbling onto growing evidence that people want to thrive and grow.  And still, the dream persists that we can all succeed.

I think that these topics entered the mainstream concurrent with the rise of the millennial workforce, not necessarily because of them.  The analytics that identify turnover trends happened largely because of emerging technology; the de-stigmatization of mental illness was popularized by baby-boomer medical professionals; smart phones have been improving for decades; and teachers have been pushing anti-bullying efforts for some time.  These things came sharply into focus when millennials first started to speak their minds in the workplace.

Based on his dining-room talk, it appears that Sinek’s feedback came from many non-millennials who want in on the broader discussion.  This is important from a social perspective.  But the social perspective is the flip-side of a data issue.  That is because he got tripped up by a data-labelling error.  You see, he casually referred to millennials has having been born approximately 1984 and after.  He didn’t specify a 20-year generational cohort.  He left it open-ended, like there was an unlimited supply of this generation being born every day.  This is problematic because we need good definitions to determine if there are clear differences between clear categories.  If the definition is muddy, then the identification of differences will be muddy as well.

I have had the pleasure of working with clearly defined data where I described millennials as those born from 1976 to 1995.  By getting specific about date of birth, you will find that each year you look at the data the findings can shift.  Age and generation are not the same things, and if you look at the two separately you might find, for example, that millennials as a generation do not have different quit rates.  Or you might find that concerns about career advancement are widespread (more on that in a future post).

For me this is an excellent example of how workplace analytics and workplace culture are never that far from one another.  To love humans is to wish the very best for them and their data.

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