Use Me, Or I’ve Got No Use: The Holy Grail of Workplace Engagement

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Article by: Tim Mworia

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I received some welcome feedback from friends, ex-colleagues and acquaintances about last week's inaugural column on globalization and the millennial condition. And while I expected the article to resonate with fellow millennials, I didn't anticipate this response from a gentleman with whom I share a WhatsApp group. His simply read: My biz, my rules.

After we chatted, what came out clearly was his deep distrust of his young employees, even though his door-to-door sales canvassing business solely depends on this age bracket of workers. He says that he’s seen enough through his revolving door of employees (excuse the pun), to be convinced that millennials are essentially work-shy slackers who are only interested in what comes into their Mpesa at the end of it all.

What I gathered was that the root of his suspicions was double-edged, yet he didn't see his own blunt end.

Although common wisdom will tell you millennials are looking to switch jobs at the first possible chance, millennial loyalty has not disrupted the workplace as much as people think. Rather, it’s probably the workplace attitudes within organisations towards this new wave of workers that has bred high employee turnovers.

The quickest way to disengage a millennial employee is to turn them into a 'yes man'.

Any good employer or human resource department understands that – due to the globalisation-fueled angst I talked about in last week’s column, where millennials are forced to keep one eye open for fear of job security – buying their employees loyalty is key to keeping them settled and engaged.

Now, before clutching at your bottom line, this isn't about money. What I mean by "buying loyalty" is simply to buy your employees into the company vision by giving them a genuine sense of ownership in the workplace. From my own experience, nothing is more powerful.

This one time, I was about to resign from a company I really enjoyed working in, because, to my consternation, I felt I had hit a dead wall with my role. I was quickly disengaging with the cut-and-dried work I was doing, but there just wasn’t any wiggle room to manoeuvre. My mind was made up and my resignation was drawn up. But then my boss at the time sat me down and “bought me”. She bought me in with my own version of the future – new ideas I had but never shared because there wasn’t space for them in the company as it was. I ended up staying four more years.

What millennial workers value is what everyone else values: doing meaningful work, autonomy, recognition, feedback and development opportunities. The quickest way to disengage a millennial employee is to turn them into a "yes man". The Kenyan millennial especially, despises condescension (remember ‘the face’ from last week’s column?). They've grown up with it in their homes and schools, but as adults, they carry a mindset where when faced with a choice, they'll simply walk away. Or worse, dial down on productivity if it’s happening in the workplace.

Resist the urge to always "tell". Instead, try letting the employee "sell". Let them sell their abilities and competencies to you. All you have to do is buy them into your vision by giving them ownership of a small part of the company and letting them steer its direction. Of course, you’ll have to dip into your well of patience and bear through some inevitable missteps, and also provide a guiding hand which is often much slower in bearing results than a wagging finger. Harness this way of ‘thinking’, then both your company and bottom line will be all the better for it.

But first, it’s vital to dispel the myths about millennials in the workplace; no, they are not “slackers” out for a “quick pay day”. They are valuable assets waiting to be put to good use.