Lessons in resilience for millennials

First published by The Australian, January 31st, 2018. 

Any company designed for success in the 21st century must harness the skills and passion of millennials, the digital natives born into an era of exponential change and disruption. Why is it then that so many firms are unable to engage and retain millennials? Why is it that so many millennials are disillusioned and just as likely to quit in their first two years of work as they are to carry on?

I observe many millennials who graduate from university and, in a burst of enthusiasm, get their first job, but within a year or two are struggling. Why is this?

A useful insight that throws light on this question can be found in the “hype cycle” developed by Gartner, one of the world’s leading IT houses, as a model for how a new technology introduced to the market is likely to evolve.

The hype cycle starts with an “innovation trigger” in which a potential technology breakthrough kicks things off. Early stories and media interest trigger publicity. According to Gartner, the hype cycle that follows consists of four phases.

First there is a “peak of inflated expectations”. Early publicity produces a number of success stories. Some companies get on board; most do not.

This is followed by the “trough of disillusionment”. Interest wanes as pilots fail to meet expectations. Some producers of the technology fail. Investors hold on only if surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters.

Then comes something more positive, the “slope of enlightenment”. More examples of the benefits the technology can deliver hit the airwaves. Second and third-generation products are launched and more adventurous firms fund pilots. Conservative firms remain cautious observers.

Finally there is the “plateau of productivity”. Mainstream adoption starts to really take off. The technology’s broad market appeal and relevance begin to pay off.

So, what does the Gartner hype cycle have to do with millennials? In my experience, many millennials go through the same four phases on entering the workforce.

The peak of inflated expectations: many a millennial enters the workforce with great expectations. They are digital natives with a purpose and passion to change the world, to make an impact and to do so now.

Their skill and passion is precisely what makes them so attractive and critical to employers striving to implement the business models necessary for success in the 21st century.

It is also understandable for millennials to enter the workforce with such expectations. This is a generation of young people who have been repeatedly assured they can do what they want to do and be what they want to be. A generation that has grown up in the most egalitarian of societies, receiving medals for participating and for effort, not just outcomes.

It’s also a generation in which many are virtually addicted to technology — instinctively clicking, scrolling and swiping to get what they want when they want it.

Finally, it’s a generation in which many openly promote themselves on social media, receiving instant affirmation in the form of “likes” and yet not always investing the time to build deep personal relationships such that, as business and leadership author Simon Sinek points out, “when significant stress begins to show up in their lives, they’re not turning to a person, they’re turning to a device”.

What does all this mean for some millennials entering the workplace?

They enter at the peak of their expectations; a belief they can and will change the world; that they will be what they want to be; that the rewards will continue to flow and that they will experience the same instant gratification and affirmation they get via their devices. Their entry into the workforce is the peak of their inflated expectations. What often happens next is what ought to concern the leadership of every employer and demands a sympathetic response.

The trough of disillusionment: As Sinek puts it, “You take this group of people and they graduate and they get a job and they’re thrust into the real world and in an instant they find out they are not special, their mums can’t get them a promotion, that you get nothing for coming in last and, by the way, you can’t just have it because you want it.”

In this trough the expectations and the self-esteem of many millennials can be shattered. And yet, just like in our social media pages, they don’t show it.

We cloak ourselves in a thin veneer of invincibility: all good on the outside but disillusioned on the inside. Everybody around us seems to have it all sorted: promotions at work, running marathons, in the perfect relationship, nailing their MBA and saving the world in their spare time and yet, in reality, they’re the same “duck” as you and me — calm on the surface but paddling fiercely underneath to stay afloat.

The problem is that all we see around us are seemingly chilled-out ducks going about their business — and it makes us more depressed.

What does this mean for millennials in the workplace? The optimistic, incredibly smart and vitally important millennial is just as likely to quit in their first two years as they are to soldier on.

Why? Because they’re horribly disillusioned, along the lines of: “I’m not who I want to be … and it’s been two years now! I’m not making an impact that matters, let alone changing the world and I’m now getting this thing called performance feedback.”

For some millennials, this can be a place they just want to get out of, so they up and leave. But the challenge for many of these millennials is no different to the challenge we all face: to fully learn the art of patience. To graduate from instant to delayed gratification; to make sacrifices today for the more enduring rewards of tomorrow. To learn that all good things do tend to take time and commitment — things like building meaningful personal relationships and honing our skills.

And this is where we as employers must help. We must ensure our millennials never feel like a failure despite the inevitable failings we all experience.

And we must ensure they never feel that they are alone in experiencing the emotions of disillusionment. They must know that we’ve all felt the same way at varying stages in our careers.

In a nutshell, they must know we care about them, their health and wellbeing, and their success. Otherwise we will lose them and with them will go the keys to our success in a world of exponential change.

The slope of enlightenment: this is where it all starts to fall into place for the millennial. They experience the deeper satisfaction of deferred gratification and learn by experience that the point when you feel like giving up is often the point when you finally break through.

In essence, they develop resilience, the ability to persevere and endure. Again, this is where we as employers must come to the party. Resilience can and must be taught to our millennials and, indeed, all of us. What are just some of the keys to resilience?

We need relationships — people we can turn to for support and relief when the going gets tough. We need balance — we don’t want all our eggs in the one basket of “work”, so that if things don’t go so well at work we plunge into despair. We need perspective so we see failures as opportunities to learn and keys to future success.

We need to be willing to consult others, because we all face challenges and the best way to deal with them is to seek help and support from others.

We need to boost our own health with sufficient sleep, good nutrition and regular exercise, so we are ready to face the challenges that come our way.

Like all of us, the millennial who embraces these and other keys to resilience is well on the way up the slope of enlightenment to long-term success in the workplace.

The plateau of productivity: This is where the millennial’s career starts to really take off. After all, they were born into a digital world and possess the skills vital to any employer wishing to succeed in the 21st century.

They’ve built resilience; they’ve honed the discipline to say no to the sugar hit of instant gratification, to achieve the far richer rewards that accrue to those prepared to invest the time and effort.

Impatience is replaced by a recognition that ideation and innovation requires time and space as well as trial and error.

It is here that my thinking departs a little from the language of the Gartner hype cycle. I see this stage not as a plateau, but a place of continual growth.

The millennials who reach this point find the sweet spot where their skill and passion meets market demand and they have the inner confidence and resolve to go on playing to their strengths.

For these millennials, the only way is up.

David Hill is chief operating officer of Deloitte Australia. This article draws on Simon Sinek’s interview on ‘Millennials in the Workplace’ in an episode of Inside Quest.

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