It was the onset of a business revolution. Information management professionals were in high demand. Data became increasingly vital to a new-age economy. Sounds like today, right? Well, it might surprise you to learn that we’re talking about the mid-nineteenth century. In 1853, the modern office, as we know it today, was born and Herman Melville’s classic, “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street“, addressed its realities.
In the story, as related by a law firm’s principal, the title character was hired to hand-copy documents as a new American economy emerged. Bartleby did a splendid job, far outperforming his peers. Then, one day, he stopped replying to all requests with a polite but firm “I’d prefer not to.” It’s a classic managerial problem, a once pliable employee suddenly disrupts the workday, and one you may have faced yourself.
Bartleby is used as a management case study for Susan Frost’s course “Humanities, Business, & Critical Thinking” at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. Students, primarily working adults, are asked to discuss how we handle situations like the one Bartleby presents and how far we go to be helpful? Where is the line between empathetic, humane management in the age of conscious capitalism and the demands of capital? Last semester the course conversation took a surprising and somewhat disturbing turn. The group’s vocabulary, when analyzed, reflected an affinity for heavy-handed top-down leadership solutions from outright firing an employee to suggestions of “writing them up”, warnings, and similar fear-based punitive measures. “So what?” you might ask.
The problem is that in today’s workplace, this style of leadership clashes with demographic and systemic realities. The Millennial Generation is beginning to overtake the Baby Boomers not only as the predominant workplace population as would be expected but as a group far larger than the Boomers. By 2025 they will comprise 75 percent of the workforce according to Morley Winnograd and Michael Hais. With this demographic shift comes a shift in workplace values. Randian ideals of rational and ethical egoism are changing to those of conscious capitalism. This new generation of workers, Winnograd and Hais tell us, “demonstrate a greater desire to advance the welfare of the group and [care] less about individual success”.
Millennials have come of age in a networked age of participation. According to Harvard University Professor Linda Hill, the idea of an authoritative lonely leader is long gone. Their image of a “leader” is not the go-it-alone “cowboy” we’re familiar with. Instead, it’s a collaborator who “coordinates people with diverse expertise, experience, or points of view.” A contemporary leader brings people together, learns from their distinct strengths and skills, and transforms society through smart processes.
In a Harvard Business Review article “The Innovators DNA”, authors Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton H. Christensen, define these new leaders as wanting to “connect the unconnected” so they can associate, question, observe, network, and experiment. They embrace this messy process, and the tensions, contradictions, and differences that go with them. It’s work that demands empathy, and a top-down environment is not conducive to that.
In her article on the dehumanization in the workplace, Kalina Christoff observes that fear reduces workers’ capacity to solve problems. Better workplaces actively cultivate the opposite. Its workers have room for experimentation and failure. Critical, open and honest conversations about the workplace and employee experience are commonplace. Management addresses grievances head-on. Workers maintain a sense of autonomy and satisfaction over meaningful work. In such an environment, retention and loyalty levels are high and steady.
History is full of seemingly invincible organizations, regimes and religions that fell because they didn’t change with the times. One could point to France’s 1789 meeting of the Estates General’s and their resistance to change that spurred a revolution and toppled a 700-year-old monarchy. On a smaller scale, you could examine the fall of family retail institutions in Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames which details how late nineteenth-century Parisian shopkeepers fell to the innovative management and marketing techniques of the department store. In more recent history, a twentieth-century upset occurred in the 1960s when superiors of religious orders in the Catholic Church, stymied over the questioning Baby Boomers, were counseled by Father Andrew Greeley that once these rebellious youth adjusted, this “New Breed” would not lose their vocations, nor would they leave the church. But, between 1965 and 2014, the number of nuns alone declined 72 percent according to Pew Research. Any way you slice it, the history lesson is this: those who resist inevitable changes like these cannot endure the test of time.
In the business world today, a similar crisis is brewing. Managers may roll their eyes at the workplace demands of Millennials but do so at their own risk. The best Millennial talent will flock to the workplaces that share their values or are at least willing to work with them. Madison Wisconsin’s Chamber of Commerce is banking on it as they focus on making Madison the Conscious Capitalism Capital to attract Millennial business and talent. In a 2017 Madison Magazine interview, President Zach Brandon explained that their city business leaders “embrace the legacy of the business community as described in the creed. ‘It’s been a business community that, since its start, has understood the role of humanity … in shaping Madison as this place.” When Millennials jump the ship commanded by unwavering authoritarian captains, Madison is poised to be the port of choice. With previous generations, an increase in salary often remedied problems with disgruntled talent. But for Millennials, salary isn’t much of a factor. In fact, an Intelligence Group study finds “64 percent of Millennials would rather work for $40,000 at a job they love than $100,000 a year at a job they think is boring.”
So, the next time you catch yourself balking at the suggestions of your Millennial employees, consider the cost of losing their talent and the benefits of their loyalty. Worse, you may be losing them to your competition. This highly educated generation has a lot to offer when the workplace allows it. Training managers and employees for twenty-first century leadership through classic literary texts teaches them to empathize and make real, systemic changes to their managerial style and workplace. Those who heed that advice report back that positive changes in their management style has occurred. In the years to come, investing time, money, and effort in changes or training will make company culture more empathetic to the needs of yet another “new breed” lest they fall behind and become irrelevant.
About the Authors:
Susan Frost is the founder and president of Frost Marketing Communications, Inc. She is an associate lecturer in the Humanistic Studies Department of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and will teach in the Executive Impact MBA program. Her academic focus is on the application of literary and cultural texts to business. For more please see: http://www.frostmc.com/
Christine Henseler is Professor of Spanish and Hispanic Studies at Union College in Schenectady, NY. She is the editor of the upcoming book, Extraordinary Partnerships: How the Arts and Humanities are Transforming America. For more information please see: www.christinehenseler.com