Psychology Week 2019: What we can learn for Millennials

By Jamie Sims

Leaders in the workplace have a unique opportunity and responsibility to support their younger staff who, as a generation, are dealing with an exceptional set of challenges. Often, those in their twenties and thirties don’t have permanent employment, they endure insecure rental accommodation and face an uncertain future, thanks to the threat of our climate crisis. These pressures can lead to mental health issues like depression and anxiety as well as exhaustion and despair.

During the 2019 Psychology Week, it’s timely to consider ways we support this particularly vulnerable demographic in the workplace. To help our staff thrive, we need to tap into our skills as leaders – emotional and relationships abilities, as well as intellectual and problem-solving skills. We need to be brave in heart, mind, spirit and guts. It’s probably no coincidence that the same courageous skill set is required by millennials as they face such an uncertain future.

If we think about our own organisations, our younger staff often experience a very different world to the one we inhabit. They are dealing with the day-to-day-operations of the business in a way that we, as leaders, may barely remember! They have valuable insights into the way things might run, and the concerns facing customers or clients. This intel, of course, is invaluable.

It’s worth remembering that to lead during a time of dramatic change, those in positions of authority must connect with the values, beliefs and anxieties of the people we are directing. To engage and support younger staff, we need to draw on our own will, skill and wisdom.

According to organisational psychologist, Jamie Sims, it is essential for adaptive leaders to commit time to listen and learn from their younger staff.

“Not only will we gain valuable insights, but our staff will feel they have been heard and that their opinion is valued. If we resist the urge to offer immediate solutions or advice, we build communication channels that serve us all well,” says Jamie.

“Less experienced staff members can feel a level of doubt in the workplace and may appreciate the opportunity to express their concerns. Add to this their powerlessness in the face of the global environmental crisis, and they are quite possibly living with a level of anxiety similar to those experienced during wartimes last century.”

Managers need to enhance the level of ‘psychological safety’ staff feel, a term popularised after a study of 180 different work teams at Google found it had a bigger impact on performance than any other factor. When psychological safety exists, staff can speak their mind, offer suggestions for improvements and to make mistakes without the threat of punishment.

“Differing opinions are welcomed, not shut down.”

This is, perhaps, where we can have the most influence during these times of change.

If leaders can create an environment that allows staff to express emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence and inspiration, they will see a more open-minded, motivated, resilient and ultimately performing team. A sense of creative purpose not only improves productivity but may help our anxious staff feel empowered.

By following this model, according to Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, we’ll hear teams coming up with solutions, thinking outside the box and cracking jokes.

While we may not be able to solve many of the major issues confronting younger people in our orbit, we can:

  • Listen to, and learn from them

  • Measure their psychological safety by asking them direct questions

  • Empower them so they feel a greater sense of control and influence in the workplace

  • Offer learning and development opportunities to build their confidence and to demonstrate your commitment to their careers

  • Offer mindfulness training to all staff

  • Ensure emotional support is available for those experiencing stress, anxiety and other mental health issues.

If we are astute managers in the way we demonstrate leadership, we will see young people with higher levels of engagement, motivation to solve problems, and an ability to perform with a sense of optimism in areas where they can actually influence the future.