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Millennials and a Conversational Workplace

Millennials have a reputation. I’ll leave you to fill in whatever that means for you as many people, perhaps too many, have an opinion about Millennials (for what it’s worth, I rely on Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant for their excellent and sensible insights). Falling into the very trap I just observed, however, I would offer this opinion: In an era of rapid and substantial technological changes, business executives and talent managers must adapt and respond to the specific dimensions of the Millennial context.

I can remember the first time I gained access to the internet in my workplace, which came 10 years after I had first embarked on a career. Millennials, by contrast, enter the workplace already immersed in a wired world, which has implications they are the first to confront. Given that Millennials are now a larger generation than Boomers, this is significant to companies looking to manage their talent and create leadership succession.

As Josh Bersin points out in his article, Millennials Will Soon Rule the World: But How Will They Lead, Millennials are intent upon assuming a new mode of business leadership. They are looking for growth, non-traditional paths to responsibility, inclusion and transparency among other features of their work environments.

These same Millennials, however, emerge in a connected world that affects how they establish and experience personal and professional relationships. While contemporary technology has a positive connective utility, that is not the same as nurturing meaningful bonds. One 2010 study, for example, revealed that college students possess a capacity for empathy about 40 percent lower than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years before. This indicates diminished competence to become self-aware leaders, able to understand others they supervise or in the world around them. It also attenuates their ability to construct and maintain the inclusive and accountable workplaces they desire.

While Millennials have adapted technology’s capabilities to enable connection, they also have found those same technologies and remote platforms reveal those connections often to be tenuous, inauthentic and unsatisfying. While these nascent issues are true also for other generations, Millennials uniquely encounter them without having experienced an environment absent those technologies and internet connectivity.

As the marvelous Sherry Turkle notes, however, conversation is the cure. Diligent attention to the principles and practices of conversation has numerous benefits for the individual and for the business. Conversation enables us better to understand others, whether of our own or of another generation, and reveals to us more clearly our interior life and potential. A culture of conversation facilitates the authentic environment of inclusion and transparency that Millennials are seeking and, in turn, allows executives and HR managers to encourage the leadership talent of the future. Weaving conversation into our personal and professional behaviors and environments marries the remarkable talents and aspirations of Millennials with the profoundly human opportunities and fulfillment that conversation affords.

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