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Workforce strategies in a tough labor market

June 1st, 2019 / By: / Business, Management

Fear of the boogeyman can change organizational behavior.

Picture this: It’s bedtime and children are getting their goodnight kisses. The parents wish them sweet dreams, leave the room and close the door behind them. With their defenders gone, the children begin their nightly debate: Is the boogeyman here? And if so, what exactly are they going to do about it?

The boogeyman comes from the 15th-century Middle English word bogeyman, which means “frightening specter.” As legend would have it, this ubiquitous creature prowls around at night, snatching up misbehaving children. While most parents reassure their children that such a mythical creature of correction does not exist, the legend persists and it taps into a powerful motivational factor—fear. Mind your manners, obey your parents, do your chores and the boogeyman will stay away. Misbehave and take your chances.

As a risk management consultant in the Marsh & McLennan Agency’s National Manufacturing Practice Group, I have the opportunity to interact with leaders across the country and ask them this question: What is your biggest fear regarding your organization’s future stability? In other words, what’s your boogeyman? Today, the boogeyman at the top of everyone’s list is workforce strategy. There is great uncertainty about the best strategy for hiring, retaining and leading teams in our dynamic labor market, a labor market whose makeup will be dramatically different for the foreseeable future.

The number one way to deal with fear of the boogeyman has always been about good behavior. Here are some thoughts on how to develop good behavior in your organization, so you can reduce the risk of this frightening specter paying your team a visit. 

Change the conversation

The words we use and the ways we think have significant effects on behavior and results. Expect a negative result and you will often get it. The reverse is also true. In today’s workforce, I believe the way we talk about the younger generation needs to change. Let me demonstrate. Grab a pencil and write down the first 10 words that come to mind about the younger generation. Really, take a minute to do this. 

Now, look at your list and circle the descriptors with a negative connotation. Do they represent half or more of the words on your list? When I speak to groups, I ask them to do this same exercise. While the results vary slightly based on the demographics in the room, a similar pattern invariably shows up—approximately 75 percent of the words listed have a negative connotation; the other 25 percent are neutral to positive. Is this unique to 2019? Is the Millennial generation deserving of this negativity?  

Get a little perspective

A quick Google search reveals that since the 1800s, all younger generations have been negatively viewed by older generations—regardless of the label given to the group. So, maybe we shouldn’t get caught up in the name of a specific generation, and instead try to understand the bigger lesson about how life experiences shape people over time and change how people approach work. 

Generational research and census data confirm that we will soon have five distinct generations working together. Forbes magazine recently wrote that workplaces will soon (if not already) have employees ranging in age from 18 to 80. 

Think about the life experiences in that age range. A newly minted college graduate views life differently than someone approaching retirement. A veteran will certainly have a different perspective on life than a 30-year-old who has not been personally touched by war. A parent with young children can’t fully understand the different perspective of an empty nester. Notice that in each of these examples, the key is a “different” perspective. Not necessarily a better or worse perspective—just different. 

Differences are opportunities

Viewing the differences among generations in a positive light can dramatically improve the culture of your organization. Rather than seeing differences as inherently negative, view them instead as opportunities to bring fresh ideas and energy into your team. This can turn an ordinary culture into something that looks and feels creative, inviting and unique. 

This is a competitive advantage when recruiting younger workers, who are skeptical of companies that claim to have the best culture in the business. They don’t want to hear how different your culture is; they want to feel it, see it, experience it and test that it is authentic. They want to be drawn in. They are hungry to work in a company that allows them to use their unique abilities to transform the organization and make a lasting impact in the world. To make your culture attractive to the younger generation, everyone must think differently, which leads to acting differently—and it all starts with the words we use.

Intentional change

This type of behavioral change doesn’t happen by chance. Be intentional about educating your entire organization on the unique traits of each generation. Start by exploring the life experiences of different generations and how that shapes their attitudes. Then explore the differences among the people on your team. Brainstorm how traits can be combined to strengthen your team and achieve organizational goals. 

If Baby Boomers are struggling to learn new technologies, team them with Millennials who have been successfully adopting new technologies since they were toddlers. If Millennials are struggling with the logic behind certain organizational structures and processes, team them with Baby Boomers who can provide historical perspective about which alternatives have been tried in the past and why your organization settled on these existing structures. This intentional mentoring process should serve as the foundation upon which you build any workforce strategy. 

Good behavior

The good behavior described here can transform the culture of your organization. Imagine a culture so magnetic that the next generation is waiting in line for a spot on your team. Think about the retention impact for employees who have been given the tools to explore and appreciate their generational differences. Picture a team that combines strengths and weaknesses across the generations, enabling a higher level of performance. 

Better yet, consider the positive community impact your team could have when everyone appreciates each other’s differences and sees them as incredible opportunities to work together and produce amazing results—results that would be impossible when working alone. Imagine so much good behavior that we can once and for all say goodbye to the workforce strategy boogeyman. 

For more articles on growing your staff efficiently, including topics such as generational differences; hiring, firing and training; motivating employees; internship programs and more, visit the IFAI Small Business Center at www.ifai.com/resources/small-busines-center and select “Staffing.”

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