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Gen Y’ers Are Special Cases

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Image: Noel S. WilliamsHave you seen the “Drill Sergeant Therapist” commercial put out by Geico?  A self-pitying patient who looks like a Generation Y member exclaims his sadness from the couch.   He engenders little sympathy from the therapist who energetically offers to escort the “Jackwagon” on a trip to namby-pamby land in search of some real self-confidence.   The therapist then throws a tissue at his sniveling subject, disdainfully calling him a cry baby.

That kind of “tough love” may be the best therapy for the self-indulgent Gen Y’er, who looks like a confused product of the self-esteem movement.   The poor lad was probably brainwashed by mollycoddling teachers into thinking he’s “special,” but when it didn’t pan out that way in the real world, oh, he got so awfully sad.

I’m also sad because I have to deal with these “special” people in the workplace, consoling them lest the fret over not getting the best laptop or an extra PC monitor.    I even feel sympathy for our Human Resources department who must deal with their tantrums over not being promoted after completing their vey first assignment.

Over the last 20 years, permissive parents successfully lobbied schools to emphasize self-esteem over accomplishment, but these idealistic efforts to build self-confidence have often gone too far.  You’ve probably heard the little tune “Frere Jacques”.  Well, many educators tweaked the ditty such:  “I am special, I am special. Turn around, you will see.  Someone very special, someone very special, yes it’s me, yes it’s me!”  This is the kind of codswallop that leads Generation Y workers to demand a reward system based on little voices in their psyches telling them they’re special, but not based upon merit systems that enable businesses to thrive.

The “I am special” mantra lays the groundwork for unrealistic expectations and may cause cognitive dissonance when the reality hits that only a few of us are truly special.  Indeed, namby-pamby land is well represented by sad Millenials — mental health statistics show they are a stressed-out generation.

It’s problematic trying to forge a cohesive work unit from nice, but essentially ordinary workers running around with ill-conceived impressions about their self-worth.  It group cohesion when a Gen Y employee complains because our business needs preclude his unusual work schedule demands, or that our career management systems don’t instantly recognize how special he is.

Workplace surveys consistently show that Gen Y employees are generally poor performers.  Many highlight troubles assimilating Gen Y employees into the workplace, suggesting they bring as many unique challenges as strengths to the workplace.

Survey results corroborate my anecdotal experiences.  My work unit was cohesive, productive and stable… until two special people joined us.  One of our newest colleagues was a Gen Y’er whose first of many peccadilloes was to erect a conspicuous  sign in her cube proclaiming “I am special.”

Established employees whose innovation and productivity created her new position wanted action; they wanted proof of her specialness, not just obtrusive signs.  Unfortunately, the self-esteem movement which forged her notion of self-importance didn’t provide her with commensurate skills.  It didn’t help that her overinflated ego led to demands for perks normally assigned to someone approaching retirement.

Our second special recruit was an equally misguided male whose highfalutin attitude was preposterously misplaced. Despite numerous efforts at remedial training and counseling, human resources eventually aided him with some outplacement services.

Attitudinal differences between generations are complex and I’m not special enough to offer an antidote.  Perhaps a bit of authoritative parenting would keep potential namby-pambies away from drill-sergeant therapists; more importantly, away from my workplace.  Educators could also toughen up a bit, perhaps even rewarding superior performance instead of imbuing everyone with Pollyannaish notions.

Pending a shift in societal norms, we can at least remedy the symptoms. Awareness in attitudinal differences between generations will enable us to direct scarce training resources to programs that install self-confidence founded upon hard work and accomplishment, not self-entitlement.

In the meantime, there is one special benefit to the great economic recession:  faced with layoffs instead of promotion, Gen Y workers are adopting a stronger work ethic and are more amenable to direction.  Let’s hope they keep it up when we’re able to hire again.

This article was originally published on Recruiting Trends.

About the Author: Noel S. Williams currently enjoys work as an Information Technology Specialist.  While he also holds a master’s degree in Human Resource Management, it is his training as Jedi Knight that gives him the fortitude to delve into the dark side of workplace unfairness.

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Upward Assessment of Darth Vader

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Image: Noel S. WilliamsA recent survey by The Conference Board, a not-for-profit organization that disseminates information about business management and economic trends, showed that job satisfaction in America hit a record low in 2009.  Part of the problem is managers who run roughshod over morale.  Part of the solution is employee surveys that provide an underpinning for managers’ performance appraisals.

Formal grievance procedures against miscreant managers are a drastic option, and often bring adversity to the whistleblower.  But so-called “upward assessments” empower subordinates by giving them input into management performance appraisals.  Measuring management behavior, not some nebulous notion that “the company cares about its people,” will rein in abusive managers simply because once something is measured, it generally improves.

I don’t need to refer to the human resource trend du jour — I already know this because my previous manager was Darth Vader reincarnate.  Recognizing the threat to his evil little empire, he usurped the survey process, twisting it to the dark side.

Published norms, articles about workplace bullying, quarterly process meetings and retreats were all his decoys, but his ultimate subterfuge was the employee survey.   He cunningly constructed this devious document to shirk responsibility and shroud his malice.  His dastardly plot recognized that direct surveys represented a powerful check upon his unfettered malevolence.

When I started this job I was bemused that our 25-person department had its own set of norms:  ten principles that basically boiled down to the golden rule.  Everyone else in our large organization was content to operate under organization-wide principles.

On the surface, our department was a group of top-notch professionals working in accord.   It seemed we had struck the optimal balance between efficiency, effectiveness and employee moral, but why did we have a special set of norms, I wondered?   Why were they plastered everywhere:  on the conference room walls, on our manager’s door, in meeting rooms?  One could not walk more than a few yards without encountering them.

I was new, but no one on our team seemed capable of belittling, intimidating, disrespecting or otherwise mistreating a co-worker.  Was this because of the norms?  Or was something more sinister at play that the norms were hiding?

A few months after I started it was time for my first quarterly “process” meeting.  As far as I could tell, this was rare, if not unique to our department.   Part of the unusual agenda called for a discussion of our norms and a potential employee survey.  An extra copy of our norms was posted on the meeting room door, almost as if there had been a recent breach of etiquette.  There had been, many breaches, the perpetrator ambushing her victims then squirming to our manager Darth for refuge.

As I ventured more frequently into various domains within our organization I noticed people wincing when I told them where I worked.  But I was new, an innocent wookie oblivious to the dark side of the force.  I went about my merry way even as my day or reckoning drew closer.

Our next departmental oddity was our yearly retreat.  Wait a minute; retreats are for dysfunctional teams, aren’t they?   I remembered from business school they might be an appropriate venue for an organization that manufactured widgets even while marketing was promoting screws and operations was into nails.  Clearly, they needed a retreat, but not our small, laser-focused workgroup; unless, of course, this was part of the elaborate charade.

It was, and my days of blissful ignorance were ripped asunder back at H.Q. when I fell into the crosshairs of Darth’s personal assistant.  Apparently, my tendency to ponder nuances annoyed her.  For daring to suggest that inventory items need to be entered into a database for proper tracking I was publicly excoriated.  Such was her venom that several witnesses were quite shaken, a 12-year veteran of salty Navy language, I was even taken aback but maintained enough composure to suggest she read our norms.

I was beginning to connect the dots.  Our department’s public image was but a cover up, all a happy face on a veil that concealed the twisted anger of an ogre who was mollycoddled by lord Vader himself.

I was but the latest victim of a long line of rapacious rampages where employee pride and self-confidence were laid waste.  No wonder everyone was so compliant and cooperative, they had succumbed.  After each devastating raid, our resident ogre sought respite in Darth’s chamber.  Job done, she then retreated to her cube to suddenly transform into the public image of serenity beneath her conspicuous copy of our incongruous norms.

Now I knew why everyone winced, everyone except unaware upper-level management.  Job satisfaction is good for productivity so they must be informed.   Not through formal grievance procedures,  but by eliciting employee input into our manager’s performance appraisals, Darth could be redeemed, and the ogre laid bare and slain.

By attempting to hijack it, our manager had shown his repressive regime’s soft underbelly: the employee survey.   His rendition was an utterly corrupt and deceitful document that deliberately avoided questions about management, misdirecting potential blame to feeble droids.  The sham demonstrated that a targeted survey could be powerful straightjacket on managers disposed to running amok.

An employee survey designed to elicit upward feedback would shine light into the dank crypt where he and trusted assistant conspired to wreak havoc.  Executives could then expose the tyranny lest another promising career be dashed.  Powerful energies aimed at self-preservation could be unleashed toward productive ends, and that represents a big disturbance in the force for good.

About the Author: Noel S. Williams currently enjoys work as an Information Technology Specialist.  While he also holds a master’s degree in Human Resource Management, it is his training as Jedi Knight that gives him the fortitude to delve into the dark side of workplace unfairness.

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