Millennials Won’t Disrupt Your Workplace Culture

Popular media has reached a millennial think piece saturation point. Well-meaning and often well-credentialed business leaders, organizational psychologists, and other experts have devoted ample time to parsing the generational differences and personality characteristics that supposedly set younger generations apart from their elders. Unfortunately, most of that is bogus.


The main problem is that time-lag data—which simply means when study participants of the same age group respond to the same questions at different points in time—are needed in order for us to reliably infer what a given generation is like. Yet most surveys on generational differences are simply cross-sectional, which means that they only compare people from different age groups at a single point in time.


The article is interesting because it includes 3 main reasons of why (according to its author of course) generational differences are less important than you may think when it comes to the workplaces of the future.  In short those reasons are:

  1. […] If you take into account that we share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and that the species we usually refer to as homo sapiens has been around for 200,000 years or so, there are no reasons to expect major changes from one generation to the next. Thus the fundamental characteristics that drive human behavior are constant. […]
  2. […] Generational differences in particular are simply less clear, and probably weaker, than group differences in gender, age, and nationality. So even if average differences between generations do exist, they still aren’t big enough to eliminate the wide range of individual differences […]
  3. While it’s comparatively easy to predict demographic changes like population growth and decline, it’s hard to influence them. […] speculation about how their values and style may impact the organizations they lead are theoretically interesting, they’re almost entirely metaphysical. […]

“It is hard to influence them”, that same counts as well human behavior, no? Whether individually or in groups, our beliefs and behaviors are hard to influence. Our current company culture is an expression of our collective beliefs and behaviors. Shaped over time, step-by-step, belief-by-belief, behavior-by-behavior. I believe it is why changing company cultures is so hard: it means you need everybody to adopt new beliefs and behaviors.

When I read the article I remembered a passage from a book I’m currently reading:

Beliefs and behavior in groups

Now let’s move from individual beliefs and behavior to groups. Behavior in groups is determined by 3 Cs. Culture is stabilized in groups because people interact with each other at work. The three Cs of culture on the behavioral group level are that people copy, coach and correct each other.

So if you are the new hire as a receptionist, for starters you copy what the others are doing because “that’s the way we do things around here.” Your coworker is going to coach you on your first day. She explains: “When you pick up the phone, be a little more polite to the customers,” or “Pick it up within three rings,” etc. But when you’re not doing good enough, your coworker corrects you. She says “You really should be doing better. You can pick up the phone within three times. Be so polite to the customer that they feel you care. Otherwise I’m afraid you can’t stay after probation time.”

A culture tends to stabilize to “the way we do things around here,” because people copy each other, correct and coach one another all the time, in various ways. That’s the sticky part of culture.

Bremer, Marcella (2012-10-16). Organizational Culture Change: Unleashing your Organization’s Potential in Circles of 10 (p. 22). Kikker Groep.

And that overlaps or adds (not sure just yet which of the two exactly) an argument to the 3 from before right?

The influence of Millennials joining the workforce may be most clear in very early stage start-ups, where the ‘founding culture’ is still shaping and there simply are no people to copy, nobody to correct or coach you. Those situations where their beliefs and behaviors become integral part of that initial workplace culture. Where there’s no other option for them than to show their true colors.

But think about it in every other context… the first millennial entering your workforce, say a 1000 people large company that’s around for 20-30 years… They WILL, like anybody else from another generation, look at others to learn about their work. Copy that, even if in their mind it is ‘just to begin’, before being able to put their stamp on things. 1 is the first one. 1 in 1000. As soon as that 1 starts to do things differently, the other 1000 people will correct and coach her on “the way we do things around here”. Being a single representative of their generation, this first one is most likely to be coached and corrected to fit.

Come along a second, a third, there’s still a minority. Growing the millennial generation in the workforce, as you can read in the article, is a ‘natural’ process. Logically, if there are generational different beliefs and values, they’ll gradually find their place in your company culture. Gradually, naturally, without disruption, because people are people and beliefs and behaviors are hard to change. They won’t change over night. Can’t be done by a CEO, can’t be done by a millennial.

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