Why Millennials Will Improve Your Company

I've been reading a number of articles and reports about millennials in the workplace--about how they expect autonomy, insist their work have purpose, and think business needs a reset toward more concern for helping society. Some of these attitudes may give their elders indigestion, but it's quite possible that this younger generation is pointing in a direction that may be good for business--and for the public sphere as well.

Dan Pontefract writes that, whatever their deficiencies as a cohort, millennials are admirable for their desire that work serve a larger purpose.

What I really am smitten with as it concerns the Millennials, is their general penchant for sharing, giving and selflessness. It's not all of them, mind you, but their overarching disposition seems to be one of altruism.

Their keen interest in experiences and opportunities versus prestige, luxuries or status is not only noble, it's a hallmark of what I call the Purpose Mindset. These are some of the traits I believe could help our organizations become more engaged. These are the traits that might instill a greater sense of purpose in the organization itself.

And a recent survey of millennials by Deloitte backs him up. 60 percent of millennial respondents said that a sense of purpose is part of the reason they chose to work for their current employer. And they are critical of business leadership for putting profit and personal reward above employee well-being and growth. 75 percent of them think that business needs a reset: though they believe that business has a positive impact, they also believe that it needs to focus more on the common good and the advancement of society.

But what about all of the negatives? For instance, we have heard that millennials can't tolerate difficult work for long, that they expect continual encouragement and rewards, and that they can't seem to fit into the work environment.

Shortcomings like these arise from lack of practice with intellectual virtues (nowadays often called soft skills in the business world)--the attitudes, social abilities, communication strengths, and thinking competencies that help people work with others. And business people do indeed find millennials lacking in this area. Last year, Bentley University published the results of a large survey of business leaders and millennials that shows 84 percent of decision-makers and 78 percent of corporate recruiters saying that soft skills are very important in the workplace, while 63 percent of decision-makers and 57 percent of corporate recruiters give millennials a grade of "C" or lower on soft skills. Both decision-makers (55 percent) and corporate recruiters (60 percent) wish millennials had developed more soft skills in college.

Why didn't they? Swarthmore College Professor Barry Schwartz has argued that college graduates lack intellectual virtues because colleges don't work to encourage them. He thinks that higher education pays insufficient attention to promoting such characteristics as love of truth, honesty, fair-mindedness, humility, perseverance, courage, good listening, empathetic perspective-taking, and wisdom.

Schwartz believes--and in this he agrees with the decision-makers and corporate recruiters who value soft skills--that the value of intellectual virtues is inestimable in the business world, but that the workplace is not suited to cultivating them. "Intellectual virtues will help to create a work force that is flexible, able to admit to and learn from mistakes, and open to change. People with intellectual virtues will be persistent, ask for help when they need it, provide help when others need it, and not settle for expedient but inaccurate solutions to tough problems."

In Stanford Business Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer's book The Human Equation, he argues that "the right way to hire is to focus on the skills you don't know how to train, and trust that you can teach the skills you do. Workplaces need people who have intellectual virtues, but workplaces are not in a good position to instill them. Colleges and universities should be doing this training for them."

What is business supposed to do in the meantime? Perhaps they need to ignore Schwarz's idea that workplaces are not in a good position to instill intellectual virtues. Even if it is true, business must do whatever it can to promote the intellectual virtues it needs on the job. Those who come to the workforce without them will have to develop them as they work.

To some extent, this has always been a problem. New, young recruits have always been inexperienced, even if in earlier generations they have been more socialized to fit in to the traditional environment of work. Today, business has to extend its expectations about inexperience to intellectual virtues.

Training will have to take this into account: along with showing newbies how to perform tasks, trainers will have to reinforce the value that the company places on honesty, perseverance, attentive listening, and the other character traits that a good employee needs to do productive work. There is no reason why intellectual virtues cannot be included; it just hasn't been traditional to expect it.

There could be a hidden opportunity here to benefit from the deep desire of millennials for purpose. What if we were to take up their challenge to reset business by convening discussions about what our companies currently do for the common welfare, what more they could do, or what new ideas might go further in helping society? Such discussions provide an opening for all the intellectual virtues to be strengthened.

For it will take courage to say honestly what one thinks is true, humility and fair-mindedness to treat others as equally valuable participants, good listening and empathy to understand others' viewpoints, and wisdom and perseverance to settle on the most practical ideas and see them through to completion. Tapping into both the strengths and weaknesses of the millennial generation will pay dividends for us all.