Are Millennials the Problem?
Written by Jocko Willink
December 30, 2021
We hear it everywhere: millennials are lazy. They don’t care. They’ve had everything handed to them on a silver platter, and they don’t want to do the work.
But think about it for a minute. Are millennials really the problem in the construction industry? Can we truly say the Dirt World’s workforce issues started when they showed up?
Jocko's answer is a resounding no. "I work with all kinds of millennials all the time, and millennials are good to go," he says.
His advice? Take a deeper look at where the problem really lies.
Listen and lead like a Vietnam War combat leader
To better understand the millennial problem, Jocko started trying to figure out what would be the worst workforce in the world to work with.
"Who would be the hardest workforce to have to deal with as a leader? And I think I figured it out," Jocko says. If you sometimes feel millennials are difficult to work with, it’s time to learn some Vietnam War history.
Combat leaders during this time had to lead a workforce made up of draftees. These were people who often didn’t believe in the war and didn’t want to be there, didn't like their job. And leaders were trying to make them do a job they could very easily be killed doing.
“I can’t even fathom a workforce that would be harder than that to work with,” Jocko says. “So how did it play out? Well, it boils down like this. Leaders who were not good leaders had a rea hard time and didn’t like their draftees. Didn't like 'em. They said the same things people say about millennials, 'They’re lazy. They're this, they're that. They don’t care.'”
But Jocko has read the history books, and he’s talked to former combat leaders who served in Vietnam. He gets two consistent responses from good leaders—responses that tell a different story.
“Number one, these leaders loved their draftees. Loved 'em. Because they asked good questions. They had to actually be led; you couldn't just bark orders at them," he explains.
And that turned out to be a really good thing for the leaders and their troops.
"The pushback that they gave was often warranted. Instead of saying, 'Shut up and do what I told you to do,' these leaders said, 'Hey, good point. Let's adjust the plan.'"
And the second thing good leaders tell Jocko? They couldn't tell the difference between a draftee and a lifer. Why? Jocko says, "Because they were good leaders. If we're having trouble with our workforce, it's not our workforce. It's us.”
Explain the "why”
Pushback is good, and it can change the course of a battle—or a construction project. But sometimes, you need people to dig in and do the job they don't want to do. How do you get them to see it your way?
"Explain why they're doing what they're doing. Give them ownership of what they're doing," Jocko says.
Now maybe in your career, you didn't have that. Maybe you had a foreman who told you to just shut up and do the work because the decision-making was above your pay grade.
But Jocko asks, "How did you feel about that? Did that make you a better worker? No, it didn't. So why would you be punitive to someone else because you were treated badly or because someone was a bad leader for you? Because that's what it is. 'Shut up and do what I told you to do' is bad leadership."
That style of leadership doesn't benefit the crew member, doesn't benefit you as the leader, and it doesn't help you accomplish the mission. It hurts the team. "So why are doing it? Because you're angry? Because you're frustrated? Or because you haven't learned yet?" Jocko asks.
That's why he loves teaching leadership. He gets to help people see how explaining the "why" helps their crew, the mission, and themselves.
Knowing the "why" behind the work gives crew members ownership of the task, because they see how it benefits the team and how they can use their skills to make it happen. That empowers them as individuals to find creative ways to step up to the goal where they can and not to get upset when they have to go by the book.
Sure, it might take you an extra five minutes to tell your crew members why, but they'll do a better job as a result.
The reality is that if you’re having trouble with millennials or any other generation of your workforce, they're not the problem. “The millennial thing isn’t a problem with millennials. It’s a problem with leaders,” Jocko says.
Ask questions and stay humble
As a Navy SEAL leader, Jocko led many people on his task unit who weren’t SEALs. There were supply people, logistics people, radiomen, and intel people. He often worked alongside the Army, the Marines, or indigenous soldiers.
Those people weren't SEALs, and in some cases, Jocko says, they "were barely even soldiers."
He adds, “And you could say, 'They just suck. They're just terrible, so therefore, we’re going to fail this mission.' Or you say, 'Okay, how do we communicate to them properly? Even if they don’t speak the same language as us? How do we convey this information where they can understand it? How do we get them to a bare minimum where we can go out and execute operations? How can we lead them?'”
That question of how to lead people well is the key—especially when you're dealing with people like vendors and subcontractors who aren't in your chain of command. Jocko points out, "I can't tell them, 'Shut up and do what I told you to do.' They don't work for me."
Asking questions about how to best lead people changes your focus. You’re no longer thinking about how tough it is to lead them. Instead, you’re figuing out how you can best lead these people, even the ones who aren’t in your chain of command.
According to Jocko, you have to build relationships to get people to work with you. So, he says, "I listen. I allow them to influence me. I ask earnest questions. I treat them with respect. I stay humble. If you do these things, you will be able to lead.”
What about the turnover problem?
One of the most common problems in the Dirt World is the high worker turnover rate in the field. Turnover happens for workers of all ages and experience levels, but many leaders blame millennials.
You've probably seen new workers show up, last a few months, then quit. And while you're scratching your head wondering why you've got 80% turnover in the field, it makes perfect sense to them.
They're trying to learn how to do a job and build a career, and if no one's teaching them how to do it, they're going to give up and go home at some point.
So how do you get your people to stick around for that first year? At times, it feels like there’s nothing you can do—like they're just going to leave. That's not true.
"If you don't think there's anything you can do, guess what? You won't do anything," Jocko says.
But there's another option. Take ownership of the problem.
Jocko elaborates, “Start talking to those people who need to last a year. You explain to them the benefits they’re going to get and how it’s going to impact the rest of their life. And even if they don't like construction, you say, ‘Give me a year, and I’ll write you a referral that'll get you a job somewhere else. Where do you want to end up? Where's your future?'”
At the end of that year, that person might take the referral and go. But there's a good chance that they'll stick around because you were willing to invest in them and lead them well.
It’s all too easy to blame millennials for the workforce problem. After all, they're the newest generation entering the workforce, and things seem to be getting worse. And it's the popular thing to do in the media.
But the problem isn’t with millennials. The problem is with leadership.
Jocko gives this advice for leading millennials (and other generations of the workforce) well:
- Listen and lead like a Vietnam War combat leader. Be open to input from your workforce, and be ready to adjust your plans if that’s what’s needed.
- Tell your workers why they're doing what they're doing. Then they're empowered to make decisions and take actions that help you reach the goal.
- Ask questions and stay humble. Instead of thinking about how tough millennials are to lead, ask questions that help you learn ways to lead them well.
- Tackle turnover problems by talking with your people and showing them how a year out in the field will benefit them.
When you do these things, you'll lead the millennials and future generations the way you should have been leading all along: by practicing good leadership and taking ownership of your workforce problems.
Written by Jocko Willink
December 30, 2021