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Is Change Stressing Your Workers? Turn to a Millennial

Adaptability, comfort with authority make younger workers OK with transition

ORLANDO, FLA.--When a merger, new computer system or remodeled office becomes so jarring that workers are growing stressed, angry and combative, Brad Karsh has five words of advice: Millennials can be your friends.

In other words, said Karsh, who spoke at the 2014 Society for Human Resource Management Annual Conference & Exposition, those born between 1981 and 2000 are so accustomed to adapting, comfortable around authority figures and confident about asking questions that they may be best suited to lead older workers in embracing company change.

“Millennials have grown up changing all the time; they deal better with change, because it’s almost in their DNA,” said Karsh, president of Chicago-based JB Training Solutions, a consultant and training company, and a Generation X-er himself.

Born in 1965, raised with the old-fashioned rotary phone, left to play outdoors without parental supervision, and accustomed to steering clear of whatever boss he worked for in his career, Karsh said his childhood experience was unlike that of most Millennials. They, he said, have adapted to numerous iterations of mobile devices and computers, grew up with structured sports, camps and “playdates,” and believe that no supervisory communication means they’re doing a bad job, Karsh said.

The session—titled “Change Management Unplugged: Four Essential Rules of Managing the ‘Millennial Movement”—drew more than 600 people and an overflow audience watching a monitor outside the seminar room. The session examined how to manage Millennials during organizational change, and how to harness these young workers’ attributes to bring older workers on board.

Karsh described four distinct stages that employees go through when facing major workplace change and discussed each transition through the lens of a Millennial, detailing how that perspective often differs from that of Generation X and the Baby Boomers:

Shock and denial. The HR professional’s job at this stage, he said, is to inform, explain, communicate continually and be transparent about what to expect. For Millennials, whose parents tended to arrange their calendars, that means they’re looking to managers for answers. “When Gen X-ers and Boomers had a question at work, they were told to ‘figure it out,’ ” Karsh said. “Millennials love to ask questions. … [they] love to know why.” That means answering questions such as, “What does it mean for me?” “How soon will it happen?” “How will it affect my job?” “Will I get more money?” “Will I get training?”

Anger and resistance. The HR department’s job here, he said, is to anticipate objections, have a plan for addressing them, and show empathy. Because Millennials are more likely to consider their parents role models than older generations, they are more relaxed around authority figures than Karsh recalls being around his bosses. Today, he joked, a Millennial who sees his CEO walking down the hall is likely to say, “Bill, you son of a gun! How’s the golf game?” And the Millennial, he said, takes liberal advantage of the CEO’s “open-door policy.” Hence, he said, the Millennial is not shy about looking to supervisors for mentoring and guidance. “You need to tap into that,” Karsh said. “You want to operate as someone they can turn to, they can trust, who can talk them through things.”

Exploration. At this stage, he said, workers are discovering the benefits of the company’s change—whether it’s the ability to access more e-mail accounts on a new mobile phone, or the closer collaboration that comes with an open-office floor plan. The HR manager should encourage workers to experiment with the change and learn how it helps them do their jobs. Because collaborating and contributing to a larger objective is important to Millennials, he said, “this is a wonderful opportunity to connect Millennials to what you’re going through. Let them lead teams. They might be moving through the change slightly ahead of Boomers and Gen X-ers.”

Commitment. Once workers are on board with the organizational change, he said, it’s HR’s task to keep the momentum going. For Millennials, this means frequent feedback. For Boomers, he explained, not hearing from the boss is good news. However, to Millennials, a lack of supervisory feedback tells them they’ve done something wrong. “It’s important for you to recognize that no news about their performance is bad news,” Karsh said. “So … news, news, news.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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