Managing The Deliberately Mute - Management
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SECTION: Management

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Managing The Deliberately Mute

Written By: Marilyn Moats Kennedy

Article Date: 07-03-2006
Copyright(C) 2008 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.

Their goal is to do good work in a timely manner.

One of the things that puzzles and irritates managers, regardless of the organization or industry, is why their twentysomething employees have so little to say.

A fiftysomething manager once said to me, "If John Wayne and Gary Cooper were reincarnated, they'd seem chatty compared to this lot! The Xers don't give feedback, don't respond to surveys, and don't participate in meetings. They don't even file workplace grievances. They just put their heads down and work."

Gen Xers, with their different values, are aware that forty- and fiftysomethings like to talk. The latter will engage in small talk when they have nothing to say.

Xers are lousy at small talk. Blame it on the influence of Nike - "Just do it" - or too many hours keeping company with a computer, but most Gen Xers believe that if you have nothing to say, silence is the only alternative.

Ask any veteran of campus recruiting. They'll tell you that whatever the young say to each other, they're laconic in the extreme during interviews.

One recruiter reported the following dialogue with a candidate.

Recruiter: Did you have any trouble finding us?
Candidate: No.
Recruiter: Do you know much about the company?
Candidate: Yes.

The recruiter said, "The young woman was obviously intelligent, a good student, and judging by her resume, a good worker. But she had nothing to say that wasn't either the answer to a question or a response to a request for more details."

He said he'd found that most of the best and brightest had exactly the same style. What they did say was important and relevant, but no words were wasted.

When I work with Gen Xers, now mostly in their mid to late 20s, the contrast between forty- and fiftysomethings' attitudes and values, especially what, when, and why to communicate, is obvious.

When I question them about their taciturn manner, they all give me the same two reasons: They really don't care one way or the other and, they're convinced that what they say doesn't matter anyhow. While this may infuriate a manager charged with getting "buy-in" or enthusiastic participation from the troops, it's a fact.

Gen Xers are focused on the assignment and the deadline; their goal is to do good work in a timely manner. They are highly skeptical that enthusiasm has any influence on the outcome.

Here's an example: A five-person team was responsible for planning a new product introduction. One person wrote the first draft, emailed it to the next person who added content, corrections, and fine-tuning. It went around the circle by Intranet until all five had worked on it. They never once met face-to-face nor did they check each other's work.

Their manager told me, "I thought it was extraordinary that five people worked serially on the plan but never interacted. It was a reasonable plan and we'll use it, but I can't help believing they would have done better if they'd met."

Like many fortysomethings, he's unable to imagine that face-to-face contact doesn't necessarily produce better results. He's right, however, in thinking that none of those five people care as deeply about the outcome as each cares about getting the job done.

There's a reason for this "I don't care" attitude.

Gen Xers grew up in an "uncrowded" generation - unlike the Baby Boomers - and they didn't have to compete for attention. They were not exhorted by their parents to be "good with people," so they never had to fine-tune their communication skills.

Instead they were told, "You must learn everything, develop good skills, be cutting edge, or - by implication - whoever you work for will get rid of you in a New York second."

The fact that companies are loaded with forty- and fiftysomething computer illiterates who haven't been fired does not show up on an Xers landscape. Obsolescence will doom them if they let it happen.

What matters is whether a job provides ongoing learning opportunities until they can start their own businesses. Then they'll have to learn to communicate with customers and clients, many of whom will be older and demand small talk. Until then expect them to maintain their task orientation.

I've heard, "What I say doesn't matter" so many times it's practically a Gen X mantra. The reasoning goes this way: "If my boss asks my opinion, and it disagrees with his/hers, we're going to do it his/her way. Talk about futility! I can't understand why someone who'd already decided on a course of action would care what anyone else thought. I wouldn't."

How many meetings are intended to affirm a course of action rather than to decide on one? I don't know, but Xers tell me that's the kind they attend most frequently.

Then there are those meetings during which a boss plays what Xers call "The Game." The game is trying to guess what the boss is thinking or what he/she wants. Xers won't play. They'll sit in a meeting for hours and not say a word since, from their perspective, there is no point.

Whether it's a task force brainstorming ways to get employees to donate to The United Way or a team meeting, Xers are convinced participation does not influence outcome.

One twentysomething said, "What I'd like to discuss is why we are harrassing people to give to an organized charity. I decide what charities I'll contribute to and it's nobody's business. If I brought up the idea of re-examining the company's commitment to a cause - made without the consent of the employees - I'd probably lose my job! We're not there to decide anything - just to create the illusion of support for what top management wants."

Even the most temperate manager can be frustrated by his/her mute charges. There are, however, ways to get Xers to talk - provided you really want their ideas and opinions and you acknowledge that you hear what they say.

Forget employee surveys; you'll get precious few responses. This group is not committed to the organization emotionally or long-term. They're just passing through. But they still may have something to say that you could use.
Here are the best techniques from those who successfully manage large numbers of the young.

Focus On What Matters

Instead of asking for feedback in general, ask what could go wrong with a project? The dimmest Xer understands prevention matters.

Don't ask questions answerable by one word. What obstacles does he/she anticipate? Concentrate on fact questions, don't fish for opinions or attitudes. Contrary as this is to the nature of management theory, it's important when dealing with Xers.

You'll find questions that start with, "How do you feel about..." get no useful response. It's the same as asking, "Are you happy with your job?" You would get a "no" response more often than a "yes." Why? You're asking an irrelevant question that someone more verbal would answer with, "I'm here, aren't I?" or "So far so good."

Neither of those responses leads anywhere.

Forget Feedback

Don't ask for feedback if you're not going to act on it. Nothing confirms the Xers belief that bosses play games so much as being asked for ideas or opinions followed by business as usual. You're unlikely to get anyone who's worked for more than six months to answer twice.

Instead, frame questions by telling Xers why you want them to respond and what you'll do with the information. For example: "I'm trying to decide whether we should allow telecommuting within the next six months. Here's what I want to know." You'll get a response. The issue matters to Xers, and you've generated trust because you've committed to a time line.

Personalize Your Request

Xers tell me the boss, not the organization, is most important to their career success - or lack thereof.

They also tend to attach themselves to a boss they respect. If your boss presses you to have employees respond to a company-wide survey, ask your employees to fill them out as a favor to you - not because they should.

Xers are not subject to "guilt" on work-related issues. The fact that you might be in hot water if they don't fill out a survey matters. What the company wants doesn't.

What's Worst Case?

Always do a worst case scenario when you need buy-in. Don't even think about "Winning one for the Gipper." Xers neither know nor care who the Gipper is.

Instead of leaving an Xer to figure out independently if you're serious about an issue or merely giving the party line, explain what will happen if something isn't discussed fully: "If everyone doesn't know all the details, we may end up overlooking something critical. Briefly, where are you on your part of the project?"

As Xers continue to enter the workplace, managers will be have to rely on a variety of communications styles, unlike the one-size-fits-all they used with Boomers.

In fact, I've identified a subset of Boomers I call the Wrinkled Busters who have the same skepticism the Xers show. They are, not surprisingly, people who went through layoffs in the 80s and have taken a vow that they'll never make the same emotional commitment to work again.

Add this group to the Xers and 10 years from now "buzz" and "grapevine" may be retro terms.

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