Business leaders tend to be go-getters, entrepreneurs and opportunists, well used to duelling rivals for supremacy, making devil-may-care decisions and taking big risks for a shot at glory. Employees, on the whole, less so.
In a notional workforce of 10,000 people, there will be a broad strata of different personalities, but you can bet the average tolerance for radical change is a lot lower than in the upper echelons of management where big decisions are made.
There will be young mums and dads who want stability of income, people nearing retirement who just want to get over the line, first-jobbers terrified of their own rent payments and generally a whole lot of people who would be content with predictable jobs as long as these are also dependable jobs.
Sending a company-wide e-mail to this lot detailing your enthusiastic plans for a “major new direction” is like throwing a hand grenade into a swimming pool full of raspberry jelly. You might be confident, assured and excited, but their response will range from sceptical to hysterical.
“Humans have a three-times stronger preference for avoiding risk than for attaining gain,” says Tim Riesterer, chief strategy officer for Corporate Visions, quoting the behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman. “Most people, whether they are employees or prospects and customers, believe that change is where most of the risk lies.”
This is a truism across the board, with one possible exception. In every large workforce there is a new generation that bucks the trend – the millennials or Generation Y, born between the early-1980s and early-2000s. Generation Y is mature beyond its tender years and is said to be savvier than its predecessors Generation X, baby boomers and the now mostly retired war generation.
Generation Y presents a unique set of dilemmas for a business undergoing transformation. If the stereotypes are to be believed, they are enlightened, politically confident and they know more than the rest of us – or at least they think they do.
“Technologically savvy, with a high exposure to all types of media, millennials are highly adaptable and capable of creating and utilising data over multiple platforms,” says James Henry, consultancy practice manager at Auriga, a data security consultancy.
“They’re very comfortable with abstract concepts, such as virtual consumerism and the cloud, and socialise as much online as they do in real life. Such technical competence means businesses need to rethink how it engages with and motivates this demographic.”
Generation Y presents a serious technical challenge to their older handlers. But there are other aspects of this segment that present problems. Stephen Archer, director of Spring Partnerships, believes this is the age group that requires the most attention of all.
“Leaders will find it more difficult to engage Generation Y employees than other age groups. Generation Y workers tend to be more focused on their own personal development rather than interests of the company,” says Mr Archer.
“They are not necessarily selfish, but they see their jobs as steps up the career ladder and therefore they are more likely to view a period of change as an opportunity to move on. The opposite is true of older workers who will be looking for reassurance and security.”
Millennials want a seat at the table and are comfortable engaging with their elders through multiple communications channels. They like to talk and will air they views whether called upon to do so or not. This is a curse and a blessing for business change.
Leaders need to spend time and effort communicating with younger employees on their own terms, but if they do, they might actually learn something, according to Dave Coplin, chief envisioning officer at Microsoft UK.
Transformation is much more about culture than anything to do with what technology might be implemented
“Leaders can better engage younger generations by listening to their views on smarter approaches to work, flexible working, and the devices and services they prefer to use. All of which can help foster a positive dialogue and make employees feel like they have played an instrumental part in any change that may occur as part of the outcome of those conversations,” he says.
Mr Coplin thinks it’s a good idea to create a collegiate atmosphere in which all employees feel empowered and energised towards the goals of the business.
“Transformation can only be successful if there is support and energy behind it from the workforce, and is much more about culture than anything to do with what technology might be implemented,” he says.
“For a transformation to have a significant impact on traditional working practices, make people more productive and free up their time so they can focus on other things, behavioural changes are needed and will only be a success if people are bought into the opportunity.”
The crucial point is that Generation Y wants to be included. It exists on a plain where everything is interactive and collaborative, and where opinions are sought, chewed over and given credence. Go over their heads and they will wonder why.
“They live in a world that is fuelled by feedback and want to give and receive this in a way which is authentic, open, trusted and in real-time,” says Richard Goold, a partner at transformation consultancy Moorhouse.
“Leaders must recognise that there will be an increasing transience to the workforce going forward as people no longer look for a career for life, but for the immediate opportunity that satisfies both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Therefore, leaders must ensure they have open conversations with this generation of employees about the process and how it will impact them.”
Millennials are unlike other generations. They feel entitled, they want to contribute and they get hurt if people don’t listen to them. During a period of transformation, therefore, they can be a major asset or a thorn in your side.
The best advice is to treat them with respect and value their input. They may not know everything, but as a group they understand the future better than all other demographics. That, surely, is what transformation is all about.