Want workplace commitment? Better know your personnel

This past weekend, as I attended my cousin’s wedding and watched her profess a lifelong commitment to her husband, I couldn’t help but reflect on the state of commitment today — specific, in this case, to the workplace. In this current age of at-will employment where staff can walk or be fired without any real warning, what does it take to keep employees committed? Or is it impossible because they’re just interchangeable parts?

Can’t have employees going full Peter Gibbons (Image retrieved from Pinterest)

For the youngest generation of professionals (and, to be fair, the generation before them), this has been reality for the entirety of their careers. Especially in the PR agency world, which is notorious for high turnover, the idea of committing for even three years is unfathomable. Commitment has become counter cultural, and as a result, loyalty is virtually nonexistent.

It may seem like an overly cynical viewpoint, and it is somewhat natural to lament this shift in mindset, but demonizing an entire generation for its lack of loyalty is a counterproductive exercise. Especially when said generation comprises a vast majority of the workforce. It is what it is, but now what do we do about it?

A number of years ago, a good friend of mine — also a former DI athlete — began coaching at a local high school as she was completing her doctorate. As we were discussing her apprehension about all the difficulties associated with coaching high school girls’ basketball, the discussion would always come back to what we saw as the first rule of coaching: know your personnel.

The goal is always to get teams to work together toward a common goal. Earning that collective buy-in, though, requires knowing your players as individuals.

The key is knowing how to get each of your horses to run.

The simplest and clearest analogy to me was getting horses to run. Some you can just point in a direction and let them go. Some you have to whip. Some you have to pet. Unless you know which ones are which, though, you are asking for trouble.

So it is with junior staffers.

The fact that they have a job isn’t enough to generate buy-in, let alone loyalty or a commitment to stay longer term. Nor should it be, because one of the first things they see in their HR papers or employee handbooks is that employment is at-will and, thus, the company has made it clear it has no real loyalty to them.

Salary is nice, but junior staffers aren’t getting paid anything they can’t make by jumping to another employer. No one wants to be micromanaged, nagged or endure any other type of negative motivational techniques, so whipping those horses will get them to run…but the direction will be right out the door.

So what, then, is the equivalent of the pet?

Well…lots of things since it will vary on a case-by-case basis, but there’s that first rule of coaching again. Know your personnel. All employees have their own identities, and that individuality will always factor into what motivates them. It is our job as managers to invest our own time and energy into getting to know our junior staffers, so we are able to work with them in a way that makes sense, thereby putting them — and, consequently, the team — in a position to succeed.

While I do see their point, I’ve never been a big fan of generational studies, and I believe the trite narrative of millennials being lazy and wanting everything handed to them is overblown at best and completely inaccurate at worst. Certainly, you can find counterexamples, but the truth of the matter is that making sweeping generalizations about the largest part of today’s workforce is foolish anyway.

Most of the junior staffers I’ve worked with have been extremely thoughtful and more than willing to work hard and be held accountable for their results, but they need the assurance that their work has meaning. Crossing off tasks for the sake of crossing off tasks does nothing for them — the context of their work is vital.

If we’re doing our jobs correctly as managers, this is easily addressed. If we can’t assure junior staff that their contributions are meaningful, then we’re either assigning pointless work or we’re not putting enough thought into matching their tasks with their talents. Either way, we’re contributing to the inefficiency of our teams.

Getting junior staffers to buy in and commit to the team, shouldn’t be as difficult as its often made out to be. It’s less a generational problem and more a leadership problem. While we can’t (really) change the at-will structure of employment, we should constantly evaluate the way we structure and work within our teams. If we’re failing to teach our junior staffers and provide them with a rewarding work experience, then they won’t commit to us…nor should they.