An observable characteristic of GenMe is the paradoxical relationship they have with authority figures. In that GenMe individuals are more prone to challenge or even reject authority figures while simultaneously needing rewards and praise from those same figures. This creates complex relationships in the space of responsibility, ownership, and accountability — which for ease of reference I will group together here under the catch all of accountability. The first challenge of which is the relationship GenMe perceive between accountability and reward.
Accountability and Reward
As noted in the two previous articles — Leading GenMe and Challenges for Leadership when Managing GenMe — employees with high entitlement and a strong need for extrinsic rewards, often experience frustration when pay rises and promotions are not regularly flowing in their direction. This psychological mindset has the tendency to erode the efficacy of performance based rewards. Even more challenging for managers, this process affects the role accountability plays in organisational behaviour. Far from being a responsibility, it becomes an opportunity for GenMe employees who see accountability only as a mechanism to enable their reward expectations and to receive positive evaluations of their work.
Worse yet, as tenure with an organisation increases, and it becomes apparent that accountability is not a purely one way street which leads to pay, promotion, and praise, employees can come to see accountability as a stress situation. One that hinders their coping abilities and can even threaten their career advancement. Meaning that managers face a multipolar landscape when thinking about accountability, one which involves ‘formal and informal systems, objective and subjective evaluations and rewards, and internal and external audiences’.
With GenMe individuals taking a largely subjective view of accountability, managers need to be awake and aware that a heightened sense of entitlement can carry with it the perception that their team thinks they need neither leadership or direction from ‘the boss’, while simultaneously requiring praise and positive feedback from the very boss from whom they think leadership is not needed. This can be, to say the least, a very confusing situation for managers.
One example of how this confusion can manifest is when an entitled employee expects all of the benefits that accrue from a long established professional relationship — such as trust, job satisfaction, positive appraisal, higher pay — but without the long term dedication to achieve these ends. Another example is that members of the GenMe cohort are less willing to be subordinate to traditional signals of organisational leadership, such as policies and role titles. The result is that managers who are seeking to bring about ethical change in an organisation’s culture are likely to encounter resistance from individuals who are high in entitlement if they see the future direction of the organisation as an implicit criticism of their beliefs or choices.
There is a silver lining to this seemingly dark cloud, in that opportunities lie in wait for managers who are able to align the personal goals that matter for employees with organisational objectives. This can be achieved by leveraging short term rewards — such as a day off for achieving the quarterly goals, or public praise for a well delivered project — to create a feeling of lively expectation when organisational needs are delivered. In time, these rewards can be increased as the timeframe lengthens. Consistent, high quality delivery over the course of a year will yield a pay rise. The same quality and consistency over a two year period will result in a promotion, even if only in job title.
For senior leaders, the extrinsic rewards at their disposal offer tantalising opportunities to build team cohesion and motivate employees of a GenMe mindset. However, this is a double edged sword in the organisational behaviour space as it elevates innate GenMe characteristics, such as perceiving managers as being more ‘leader like’ if they control resource allocation or have the power to grant pay and promotions, while devaluing arguably critical leadership abilities such as reasoned deliberation, industry or institutional knowledge, and likeability (not being an ass). The problem here is that in organisational settings, there are far more leaders without organisational power than there are with. To check which boat you are in, do you have the power to grant a pay rise, or do you need your boss to sign it off?
In some cases, there will also be opportunities for managers to explore replacing extrinsic rewards with intrinsic ones, such as fostering the innate sense of being satisfied with a job well done. When intrinsic rewards can be interwoven with extrinsic rewards such as public affirmation or a pay rise, a phenomenological perspective can be established in which an employee will adapt their subjective experience of work to apprehend personal value even if objective (e.g., a pay rise) benefits are not realised from each accountability interaction.
To be sure, this is a long term endeavour as such philosophical shifts are not easily achieved. Meaning that managers who seek organisational change will need to be in it for the long haul, often not having a positive report to deliver for the quarter, and having to deal with regressions when team member entitlement is activated.
Communicating with Teams
The ubiquitous use of technology in business has radically changed organisational communication, a process that has only been accelerated by Covid, with employees increasingly using text or computer-mediated methods of communication. Asking people to keep their camera on during remote meetings helps but is still a far cry from the rich interpersonal interactions that occur when physically face-to-face. Yet given that it is highly unlikely this trend will ever reverse, there are still ways in which managers can leverage the ‘new normal’ to their advantage.
Taking as a ‘given’ that GenMe individuals have a lower tendency to form deep-rooted relationships with colleagues, they also tend to form more expansive networks of shallow connections. Networking of this type will struggle to achieve leverage in a major negotiation, but does open up possibilities in the spaces of marketing, sales, resource acquisition and even inter-organisational partnerships.
Communication also plays a pivotal role in helping to shape employee expectations. A process that is critically important when managing GenMe as their high levels of entitlement are usually partnered with high personal regard. In that they will tend to perceive of themselves as high-performers and thus part of the ‘in-group’ or high quality team members discussed in last week’s article which dealt with Leader-Member Exchange. Unless clarity is achieved regarding personal performance, it will be hard to motivate change in an individual who already sees themselves as a top performer. But as also discussed last week, too much reality is unlikely to stimulate positive results from GenMe, rather it will further weaken an already tenuous organisational bond and result in greater staff turn-over.
For managers with little to no organisational power, in that they are simply responsible for passing on the negative news to ‘their’ team regarding the pay review decision of the Executive Leadership Team, there are still opportunities to lead GenMe — particularly in the field of ethics. Prima facie this may seem doubtful, given the amount of verbiage I have expended on detailing the entitled and extrinsic characteristics of GenMe and the way in which these characteristics can lead to unethical behaviour if the rewards outweigh doing the ‘right’ thing. Yet there is a case to be made that in most circumstances, where employees are not in the position of a Holmes or Balwani in which the upside of allegedly unethical behaviour can be measured in the billions, managers can lead change by establishing metrics for ethical behaviour alongside their other OKRs. When managers twin this approach with the modelling of ethical conduct, a psychological association is generally made by the employee between extrinsic success and ethical behaviour. An approach which may be initially driven by nothing more than a GenMe need for recognition and achievement, but which can lead to longer term organisational behavioural change.
It Begins With Onboarding
While I have focussed on the role managers play in leading GenMe, I will finish where a recent article began — Human Resources. Be it recruitment and onboarding, probation reviews, advice on how to conduct an effective WIP, career pathways, leading organisational change, or exit interviews, HR practices can make or break the ability of a manger to engage employees in a successful leader-follower relationship. Particularly with regard to GenMe. Examples of this are manifest in the recruitment phase, during which HR have considerable sway in:
- Helping managers to go beyond the usual CV check list if the candidate has X years’ experience in the role for which they are recruiting, or their salary expectations are ‘within our remuneration band’.
- Engaging managers and candidates in expectation lowering processes. Something which initially seems deeply counterintuitive in an age where managers are encouraged to ‘sell the role’ to prospective candidates, yet will actively aid in retention as employees are not caught up in false flag recruitment.
- Facilitating realistic job previews (RJP). This may take the form of secondment or shadowing when an internal hire, or that an interview goes beyond a handful of questions and instead involves scenarios to help the candidate feel out the role.
- Ensure candidates have clarity regarding pay and progression within the organisation. E.g., are they being hired into a role or organisation where there are genuine career progression pathways or only hired to perform a specific job with little time or chance given to advancement.
While such an approach will likely shed GenMe candidates from the recruitment process, it will mean that those who accept the role will start with a far higher level of organisational alignment than might otherwise be the case. A result which will save tens of thousands of dollars on the average hire where candidates are let go during probation or worse, end up burning management and team time now they are an FTE on trying to create engagement with an employee who is fundamentally not aligned with the hiring manager and organisation.
Post hiring, HR can assist uncertain managers in the socialisation process by helping them to articulate to employees the way in which individuals, teams, and departments with which they interact are interrelated and either dependent or interdependent on each other. This process can help to overcome the more pronounced individualistic tendencies of GenMe so that they see the benefit in coordinating their work with colleagues or so that they go beyond the base manager-employee interaction of performance and reward and instead begin to see their manager as an organisational leader. A shift in perception which will help managers go from boss to mentor, enabling them to form autonomous workgroups from their previously disparate employees.
A final area in which HR can assist in the management process is by helping managers to acclimatise to the reality of leading a GenMe employee or team composed predominantly of a GenMe mindset. This is done by helping them to understand that team members who prioritise their personal life over work commitments are not intrinsically lazy or unambitious. Often quite the contrary, they may simply not see the potential for return in their particular work setting and are biding their time in search of more optimal conditions. Examples of this are employees who apprehend that exceeding expectations will have no impact on an impending salary review or because their only career path is their manager’s role and that isn’t coming up any time in the next decade.
Once managers more fully apprehend the individual motivations and values of their team, they can provide leadership rather than mere task management. The sooner this happens, the sooner teams will become high performing and enablers of strategic goals.
Perhaps the great irony is that people with high individualism tend to fear authoritarian regimes. Yet by rejecting notions of a common goal, unless that goal directly benefits them, pushes managers ever further down the road of authoritarian leadership. The reason is that instead of being able to employ vision, goal setting, and effort and reward paradigms to bring teams together, managers are forced into the position of ‘ do it because I am the boss’.
GenMe attitudes are unlikely to ever vanish from the organisational landscape, much though many managers may wish it so, and job hopping will remain an ever present challenge for organisations — particularly with inflation eroding wages. This means that only by understanding GenMe attitudes and motivations can managers hope to mitigate the worst of the effects on organisational behaviour and develop high performing teams.
While much of the organisational literature, either academic or in the popular press, will advocate solutions such as boundaryless careers, increased work from home opportunities, the four day week, or open-ended employment relationships, the very same literature yields one central finding: that ambiguous situations create increased stress, lower organisational trust, and engender a greater tendency to switch organisations when things get tough. Findings that create something of a paradox.
In such a landscape, providing more structure, not less, in both the daily tasks of employees and their perceptions about career pathways, offers the strongest viable path to improved staff retention and higher team performance. A process that is even more crucial in organisations where GenMe do not just make up a majority of employees, but a majority of the senior leadership team. Leadership teams which will have hyperinflated views of their ability to lead the organisation through difficult times and which will inevitably result in more scandals such as the recent one at PwC. On that note…
Good night, and good luck.
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