Gallup’s 2011 Work Environment Index (WEI) dropped to 45.4 percent in February — the lowest point in 38 months — and almost one quarter of those surveyed do not expect to be at their current jobs within a year. While learning leaders refocus efforts on knowledge transfer from senior employees, they may unintentionally heighten two aspects of a retention dilemma by ignoring differing generational values.
One aspect concerns the aging-but-reluctant-to-retire boomer population occupying a large percentage of available authority positions. Boomers want to be valued not just for their seniority, but for their hard-won knowledge and abilities. Without that respect, they may “sandbag” knowledge retention efforts to retain some value, or simply ride off into the sunset, taking that wisdom with them.
Retention of younger talent is an equally critical concern, due only in part to boomers’ refusal to give up their chairs. Millennials will gladly take their skills elsewhere if not treated with respect, given meaningful work and strategically developed.
Winning companies in today’s knowledge-based economy will capture the power of both ends of the employee age continuum. They need employees who are innovators, quick thinkers and question the status quo, but also need critical thinking from those who have “been there and done that.”
There can be some tension between the two generations. This tension, and associated threats to retention, represents a clash of values. Millennials and their younger siblings have a voracious appetite for learning and technology. They value speed, trends and the ability to “crack the code,” and are often disdainful of structure and formality. By contrast, boomers, having fought to gain experience, value respect, authority and wisdom, and they expect their opinions to be sought.
If companies fail to address the values underlying these operating styles, both may feel disrespected and undervalued. To effectively transfer knowledge and retain talent, organizations must help these generations learn to work together to leverage each other’s abilities.
Both have something to offer, but conflicting values can make accessing these capabilities problematic. Three competencies can enable each group to understand and successfully mentor one another.
Approachable humility: Boomers traditionally express respect for position, rank and seniority through office design and valuing hierarchy — the corner office or meeting with people at certain levels — which can make them appear unapproachable. By the same token, millennials’ attempts to demonstrate humility via silence often appears equally standoffish to boomers. Both must step out of their comfort zones to build mutual, approachable humility — boomers by using open space designs and taking initiative to engage their younger colleagues, and millennials by taking risks, making process suggestions and informing managers of improvements they have made.
Earned respect: In sharp contrast to boomers’ focus on results, millennials respect effort and the process of achieving results as much, if not more, than the results themselves. For successful exchange, boomers need to
be more tolerant of failure and learn to value effort; millennials must learn to value the bottom line to earn boomers’ respect.
Virtual partnership: Traditionally, for boomers partnership requires close physical proximity. Today relationships take on different meaning. Boomers can be mentored by their younger counterparts on the value of virtual relationships, texting, Skyping, tweeting and other emerging technologies.
Today’s organizations have been so focused on boomer knowledge transfer and millennial management they have neglected issues around mutual value and respect, which can heighten an already noticeable retention dilemma. To retain both populations and drive competitive advantage in a knowledge-based economy, learning leaders must build systems for mutual coaching and mentoring, promote the open exchange of ideas and encourage employees to challenge each other’s thinking to create the results desired.
Amy Bladen Shatto is the CEO of Leadership Variations, and Kris Girrell is a senior partner at Camden Consulting Group. They can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.