People grumble that the younger generation of workers are getting worse; that they are immature and irresponsible; that they don’t work hard enough; that they want quick results while not willing to put in the effort. Many feel that the “internet generation” is too used to instant gratification, and don’t persevere for more meaningful rewards.
Are younger workers as bad as many of their supervisors and bosses’ complaints about them suggest? Many of the millennial generation don’t think so.
Two of my students, Candy Ho Hiu-ying and Maggie Siu Ting-yan, did a study to find out why there is a gap in expectations between millennial subordinates and their supervisors.
They studied four supervisor-subordinate pairs. One might expect the bigger the age difference between the supervisor and the subordinate, the bigger is the expectation gap. But this is not so. The four cases in the sample have age differences of five, six, 13 and 15 years. Yet, the expectation gap is smallest for the supervisor-subordinate pair with the 13-year age difference. The expectation gap for the case with an age difference of six years is highest.
Simple steps to avoid stereotyping
Supervisors sometimes harbour negative stereotypes about the post-90s generation, and these stereotypes turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. A supervisor might have read stories on social media that some millennials reportedly answered job interview questions with “my mother said” instead of “I think”, or that some millennials give up easily. When these supervisors’ young subordinates ask for clarification or assistance, instead of trying to understand what they need and why, they immediately typecast them as dependent, and hence don’t trust their abilities.
Stereotypes are mental shortcuts to put people into categories for easy processing. It’s natural. However, generalising stereotypes to all individuals within a group is unfair to many of them.
Besides stereotypes, the study also finds evidence that some supervisors have a tendency to benchmark their subordinates’ performance against their younger selves’ work standards – the all-too-familiar “when I was at their age, I was much more independent, hardworking, etc.” This could be problematic because we tend to overestimate our efforts and achievements, and because it doesn’t sufficiently take situational differences into account.
Thirdly, the study discovers that the organisational context matters as well. Supervisors themselves are under regulatory pressure from their senior managers and/or the owners of the company. At times, their viewpoints are constrained by company policies (“I value productive time over face time, but the company has strict policies about punctuality. Sorry.”).
Last but not least, underpinning the “generational gap” between supervisors and subordinates is poor interpersonal relationships and a lack of open and honest communication. Both supervisors and subordinates should try to see things from the other’s perspective, and to collaborate in uncovering and changing organisational policies that are too rigid or outdated.