I have grown fond of coming up with self-explanatory alliterations that describe some of the behaviors employers are now dealing with in today’s workplace. These include menu-driven thinking, safe-decision syndrome and now decision-deficit disorder. This week’s inspiration was inspired during a conversation I had with a colleague who was lamenting the reluctance of many young people to take initiative and act independently.
Now, before the under-thirty crowd goes off on me for making an unfair generalization, allow me to explain my reasoning. You see, I believe that the responsibility for decision-deficit disorder rests on the shoulders of the previous generations that fostered it through their social practices. This coupled, with some evolutionary changes within the marketplace, has allowed many of those entering the workplace to come of age without being compelled to develop the skills and confidence necessary to thrive in everyday business environments.
Many, but certainly not all, of those born from the early nineties forward have been raised in an environment where conflict is abhorred by those around them. They have come of age in an environment of bully-proofing, safe spaces, helicopter parents, and other euphemisms that seek to shield them from the discomforts generally associated with life. At the same time, we have informed them, as a society, that they are entitled to anything they want, any time they want it with a click of a mouse or the touch of a screen.
Is it any wonder then, that many entering the workplace possess a skewed set of beliefs about how they, and everyone should be treated. The workplace has, and always will be, an amalgam of personalities and conflicting beliefs and priorities. Yes, there is a never-ending series of policies and regulations put in place to correct the perceived injustices suffered by one individual or another, one group or another. But while all of these policies are well intentioned, few are truly enforceable. The end result is that many young people end up thinking, “That’s not fair,” when they don’t receive the treatment to which they believe they are entitled. This, by itself, fosters a sense of disillusionment and fear that making mistakes or failing to do or say the right thing will result in the humiliation they’ve been conditioned to dread.
A second part of this equation is the road that many of today’s young people travel, or don’t travel, on their journey into the adult workplace. Historically, those coming of age took on their first paid employment during their mid-teens. This was through babysitting, mowing lawns, delivering newspapers, busing tables, working in fast-food and the like. But in the past two decades, three phenomena have conspired to alter this right of passage.
First, a number of these jobs have disappeared due to technology and changing consumer tastes. (Think newspapers.) Second, many of these entry-level positions have been assumed by adults. Lawn care, for instance, is now handled by a service, rather than the kid next door. So-called entry-level positions in food service are now filled by those in their twenties and older. (As a fast-food manager, who would you hire for $15 per hour – the 16-year-old with no work experience or the 27-year-old supporting a family?) Finally, there are the teenagers themselves and their beliefs about work. College-bound students are encouraged travel abroad during the summer, obtain internships and other experiences to polish their resumes. Then there is the dismissal by some, about the value of working at an early age. As a freshman engineering major asked me recently, “I’m going to be an engineer. What would a fast-food job possibly teach me about engineering?”
So, how does all this relate to decision-deficit disorder? To put it bluntly, young people who delay their entry into the workplace, postpone their development of the basic skills and understanding essential to thriving in ANY job. If you don’t develop these skills as an adolescent, you will have to develop them upon entry into a professional position in your early twenties. But then you will be saddled with developing not just those basic skills, but the skills of the professional-level job for which you have been hired. Is it any wonder then, that managers complain that so many of their young contributors lack “common sense?” When I’ve asked managers to explain what they mean by common sense, they describe the lack of these basic work skills and the confidence to use initiative on the job.
Is there a solution to all this? Yes, but it has to take place on a granular level. Our policy makers can’t enact common sense skills regulations. Employers can’t implement company-wide decision-making and take-initiative policies. It is up to individual supervisors to teach their young hires the critical thinking and problem-solving skills essential to contributing in a meaningful way.
The good news? Take comfort that when compelled to do so, most of these individuals come up to speed quickly. We just have to stop enabling them with policies and practices that reinforce their beliefs about avoiding discomfort and any sort of failure. Begin today. Whether they know it or not, this generation is depending upon you to help them to do so.