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Empowering Young Professionals Through Empathy

Many people call Millenials and Generation Z the trophy generations. Our system of extrinsic awards, trophies and other mechanisms, have created generations of those who crave certainty and depend on external motivators.

Not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings and in an effort to build young people up, even when they didn't accomplish anything significant, we gave out trophies, accolodates, prizes and other pats on the back, that were sometimes earned and sometimes provided so that no one went away sad. I am all for lifting people's spirits, so, to be clear, I am not heavily criticizing these efforts (as I am sure I might have partaken in this activity from time to time as my child grew up), but what has this done to those children who are now adults?

When you have been acknowledged your whole life whether you did something special or not, you come to expect it. Think about it. You are in 3rd grade and you particpate in a sports day event. You are athletically untalented, but you completed the three events you were assigned without throwing any attitude, even though you finished last place in every event. At the end of the day, you get a good sport award. Shouldn't we expect children to behave in all school events whether they are good at them or not? Those that are not fantastic writers don't get a good sport award for participating in the writing assignment. After some 20 years of this type of response to mediocre, non problematic performances, you come to need it. It says you have been acknowledged as meeting expectations.

Possibly more importantly, we grow up in a world where extrinsic rewards and markers of success are readily available. You get good grades for doing a good job. High SAT scores mean you have aptitude. Scholarships show that someone else values your previous and future contributions. You won the race and are going to compete in the state competition; your artwork was accepted into the county's art show, or you just got accepted into the statewide entrepreneurship competition for your proposal on getting rid of plastic bags. The truth is that success post school is more complicated, nuanced and ambiguous. We yearn for the days when we were given a trophy for showing up with a good attitude, and there were ribbons for our performances, assessments to show our progress, and report cards every marking period. Anecdotally, I teach a class where students design their own class, including the structure for determining performance. They could choose anything or no mechanism at all, but they typically, after much debate, still choose traditional grades. They want a process that seems fair and provides expectations for achievement. We yearn for straightforward purposes where we understand what we need to do to cross the finish line.

This is a two fold issue. Not understanding whether or not you are doing a good job or having other performance indicators, can lead to ambiguety that leads to frustration. It can also create a lack of purpose (especially for those that are used to chasing a tangible carrot). Both frustration and lack of purpose affects motivation, engagement and overall success.

The truth is our young professionals may be less entitled than they are scared. Scared that they are doing it wrong, that they don't understand what is expected of them, that they might get fired. When they feel that unease, they don't know what to do with it. Could this be the reason this generation is known for hopping from job to job? Are they looking for the boss who will take away that anxiety, the anxiety that they aren't enough? After all, vulnerability expert Brene Brown tells us that we all fight against this fear that we are not good enough, not special enough. Not knowing if we living up to expectations, or worse, not understanding the expectations, provides ambiguety that is unsettling. Living with ambiguety is difficult, especially for over achievers who want to get it right and feel motivated all the time.

The bottom line is that while young professionals cannot expect the positive reinformcement that many of them received growing up, they do have a right to expect open communication with their supervisors and colleagues. In fact, "20-somethings and early 30-somethings want feedback from supervisors more frequently than any other generation in the workforce." Once we have hired someone that we believe to be a good fit, we should ensure our supervisors and colleagues are trained to support them. Anything less is a waste of time, human potential and financial resources. The Society for Human Resource Management states that the average cost to hire an employee is $4,129 Every worker has a right to know what is expected of them, and they should get mentored when they fall short of expectations. When they have hit it out of the park, it would be wise to acknowledge this and explain why this was a huge success. This fosters learning which allows behaviors to be reinforced and repeated. No one wants to be baraged by questions; it is important for all employees to, at least, try to figure things out on their own. It is equally important that new employees have someone reliable to bring their questions to without feeling like they are being a nuisance. In shared vision, it would optimal for supervisors and new employees to discuss expectations and assessment mechanisms, and there should be regular meetings to discuss progress so the employee knows that all parties are invested in their success (and these mechanisms aren't just for show); this builds trust. In trust, frustration lessens and motivation increases. If Millennials and Generation Z employees are bought into a company in empathy with who they are and why, they can be supported to be their best selves. Once again, Endgame Empathy!

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