Just before Christmas I decided to dump my Iphone for a Galaxy Note 4. A new AT&T store just happened to be opening in my small town and I was one of the first customers through the door. I was determined to learn all I could about the Galaxy before making the switch.

As I stepped inside, a man I took to be in his 70s approached me with the familiar “May I help you?”

My brain begin yelling, “Go away, I don’t want to talk to you. You don’t know anything about smart phones!” I caught myself, thank goodness, and realized I was stereotyping.

Yes, I, the diversity queen, who preaches against this practice, fell into the stereotyping trap.

Why is it so easy to stereotype even when we know better?

Our brain has a built-in function that allows us to generalize. For instance, generalization is very useful when we see a pot of water boiling. Once we learn that we can be burned by the boiling water, we do not have to relearn this fact every time we see a bubbling pot. Just imagine how stressful life would be without our ability to generalize.

We can trip up, however, when we deal with people. Stereotyping keeps us from seeing the individual and all his/her potential. We often handicap that person with stereotypes.

The IBM Institute for Business Value, in its report “Myths, exaggerations and uncomfortable truths: The real story behind Millennials in the workplace” compared the preferences and behavioral patterns of Millennials (aged 21–34) with those of Gen X (aged 35–49) and Baby Boomers (aged 50–60).   The study concluded that Millennials want many of the same things their older colleagues do. While there are some distinctions among the generations, Millennials’ attitudes are not that far apart from other employees’.

The report suggests that those in leadership positions do the following:

Focus on the individual

Managing a multigenerational workforce entails seeing people as individuals, not generational stereotypes. Organizations need to plan how best to leverage Millennials’ capabilities. But they need to be wary of placing so much emphasis on age that they lose sight of individual preferences and skill sets that transcend generational clichés. To recruit, retain and grow top talent, employers need robust workforce analytics, together with policies and programs that accommodate individual career aspirations. 

How to get started: Map a talent strategy in phases — short-term and long-term. Assess the current state to set a baseline and identify improvements. Factors could include: compensation, workplace flexibility, diversity, a collaborative and innovative corporate culture, use of the latest technologies, management styles, skills, training and so on. Identify the tools and analytics needed to execute the strategy and measure the results.

Foster a collaborative culture

The best and brightest employees — those with the potential to become tomorrow’s leaders — are likely to prefer working in a collaborative organization where they are encouraged to contribute new ideas and take a consensual approach to making decisions. Executives in enterprises where this isn’t common should think about how to change their work environment and incentives. As the workplace becomes more virtual, they also need to consider how their collaboration tools can leverage the latest in cloud and mobile technologies.

How to get started: Make a senior leader the “Collaboration Czar” to build a team of enthusiastic employees from all parts of the business who’ll develop a strategy for improved collaboration. Internal grassroots collaboration programs can be very powerful, but sustainable change requires that executive leadership shift the culture.

Make customer experience a priority

Many employees — not just Millennials — are eager to adopt new technologies at work. But most believe their organizations are reluctant to change because of the impact this could have on their customer experience — ironically, an experience that respondents overwhelmingly say isn’t handled well. Business leaders need to investigate any delays, be transparent about the challenges and work collaboratively to implement innovations that could improve the customer experience.

How to get started: Do a thorough assessment of the customer experience from your customers’ point of view. Detail all interactions that touch your current technologies. Find the spots where the experience falls short; determine the source of the problem and why it exists; and perform a risk benefit analysis to clear the path for a course of action.

Look within

Our results suggest that many leaders may be overestimating how well they’re connecting with their staff. Introspection is hard — and sometimes painful — but all leaders need an honest assessment of their own strengths and weaknesses. They need to ask themselves these tough questions: Do you inspire confidence? Do you show an interest in your employees’ professional development? Do you communicate with clarity and transparency?

How to get started: Leaders, take a look at your calendar. In the last six months, how much time did you spend celebrating team successes and recognizing employee accomplishments? How frequently did you meet with employees for roundtable discussions about the business? How often did you talk with those you mentor? If the answer is “not enough,” consider creative ways to connect more often and more effectively — both in-person and virtually.

Get everyone on board

If employees don’t understand the business fundamentals, the organization is bound to struggle. Leaders need to make sure all employees understand the strategy, business model, what customers expect and what the brand represents. They also need to ensure employees know how they fit within the grand scheme. If everyone is on board, the business will have a more engaged workforce — and a more engaged workforce delivers a better customer experience.

How to get started: Use online survey tools to test employees’ understanding of the business fundamentals and capture feedback. Devise a method to ensure anonymity. Analyze the results and form a task force of employees across the business to address the root causes of the problem and develop pilot programs to introduce improvements. Be transparent about the findings and update employees on the progress.

And about that Galaxy? Turns out the man who approached me was an AT&T executive who was in town for the grand opening. He quickly turned me over to a younger individual who came from an out-of-town store to help for the day. I bought the Galaxy and spent some time exploring the features.

Several weeks later I went back to the store to ask questions. The out-of-towners were gone and the regular staff (Millenials and Gen Xs) were there. I found out I knew more about the Galaxy than they did. (By the way, I am in my 60s.)

Go figure.

Myths, exaggerations and uncomfortable truths The real story behind Millennials in the workplace IBM Corporation, 2015 downloaded from http://www-5.ibm.com/services/us/gbs/thoughtleadership/millennialworkplace/.

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