Managing Millennials Doesn’t Have to Be A Head-Banging Experience

In my workshops, I refer to some employees as being locked in a routine “like a needle on a record.”  I then explain to younger audience members who may be confused that “a record is a circular disc with a hole in the middle that your parents once used to listen to music.”  That line always solicits laughter but the lesson isn’t a joking matter: generational differences in the workplace can lead to significant misunderstandings if they’re not effectively addressed.

Last month, Pew Center Research announced that, for the purposes of their research, a millennial was anyone born between 1981 and 1996.  This demographic segment has been tagged with all kinds of labels, not all of them complimentary.  What is indisputable is that more than 1 in 3 American labor force participants (35%) are millennials, making them the largest generation in the U.S. labor force.  While many millennials possess a host of positive qualities, older generations may have mixed results managing them as they would peers.  As with most things in life, your success will depend on playing the right chords.

I know many millennials who resent the popular stereotypes associated with them, and I want to be careful painting with too broad a brush.  Not every millennial, of course, falls neatly into the descriptions below.  However, playing these 3 “chords” consistently can help you best utilize the uniqueness of your younger workers and establish team harmony:

Chord One: More Feedback More Often

According to consultant and author Micah Solomon, “Many millennials have received adult feedback throughout their earlier years; they’ve often had close involvement from parents in their education and close support and encouragement from teachers and mentors at school. The contrast can be jarring when they arrive at their first professional position and suddenly have nobody who’s interested in telling them how they’re doing.”  Not everyone is equally receptive to feedback, but millennials tend to be ambitious and willing to improve to get ahead.  Most will heed your advice if it’s presented with respect and tact.

Play These Notes:

  • Make it constructive. Don’t just point out performance gaps and move on; provide substantive feedback that helps the employee course-correct with confidence.  When I worked at QVC years ago, a coach praised how I had facilitated part of a training program.  Referring to a different piece of content, he then made a suggestion about how I could do better.  “That was good,” he said. “I liked what you did.  But you might want to try this…”  Talk about the right chords!  He didn’t make me feel like a failure; rather, he gave me solid advice intended to improve my performance.  I still remember it more than 15 years later.
  • Provide it quickly. Feedback offered days or weeks after an incident loses its power and fosters resentment: “Now you’re telling me?!” I suggest waiting no more than 24 hours to provide feedback; when you do, remember Point #1.
  • Make it coach-centric. Bullying, intimidation, and humiliation are relics of the past.  These techniques may have worked with earlier generations but millennials will head for the exits if they feel attacked.  Mistakes are a natural part of learning—yes, feedback should be honest, but it should also be thoughtful, diplomatic, and focused on success.
  • Ask for their input. When it comes to feedback, the employee’s perspective is just as important as the manager’s.  So don’t just “firehose” millennials with feedback.  Use four of the most powerful words in a manager’s vocabulary: “What do you think?”  And remember that feedback should be a dialogue, not a diatribe.

Chord Two: Reinforce the Value of Their Work

In their book The Progress Principle, Drs. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer noted that having a sense of meaning in one’s work is a critical driver of engagement.  For millennials, this is especially true.  “Millennials are looking for a feeling that they’re more than a cog in a massive machine,” says Solomon.  And according to Betsy Wrecker, author of a recent study on millennials, “What matters most [to millennials] is that they are doing something inspiring that they feel passionately about.”  How can you harness millennials’ natural vitality?

Play These Notes:

  • Help them see the “big picture.” According to recent research, only 58% of employees say their employer is effective at helping them understand how their job fits into the company’s overall goals.  Because most millennials have jobs toward the bottom of the corporate hierarchy, they can have an especially limited view of what’s happening beyond their department.  Helping them see the connection between their work and the organization’s overall mission and vision is a key driver of engagement.
  • Connect with what they care about. If a millennial displays affinity for one particular aspect of the work, e.g. interacting with customers, talk to them about it.  Perhaps doing more of that will release a renewed sense of energy and enthusiasm.
  • Acknowledge contributions. Millennials can quickly become disengaged if they receive a steady stream of corrective feedback and no praise.  You don’t need to shower them with accolades, but regularly showing appreciation for their efforts will nourish their self-confidence.
  • Celebrate “small wins.” Amabile and Kramer assert that celebrating small wins— small, incremental steps toward achieving a larger goal—can yield significant psychological benefits for employees.  Millennials may not experience many triumphant breakthrough moments, but they almost certainly will experience progress in their work.  Look for opportunities to acknowledge not only the achievement of a goal but the milestones along the way.

Chord Three: Encourage innovative thinking.

In her article titled “Fortunately The Largest Workforce In History Is The Most Creative: The Millennials,” Claudia Gioia writes: “It’s not a surprise that most of the successful and innovative businesses are powered by Millennials: Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Airbnb, to name a few. The culture of these companies is to have a workforce of young people who welcome the creation of new ideas on a constant basis.” My experience with millennials mirrors Gioia’s—they readily challenge the status quo and seek new processes, procedures, and systems that will improve organizational performance.  An organizational culture that puts the brakes on innovation may find its millennials fleeing for more progressive companies.

Play These Notes:

  • Encourage exploratory conversations. The worst thing you can do when a millennial comes to you with a suggestion or new idea is dismiss it outright.  “That kind of thing won’t work here” and similar sentiments can easily douse the flames of inspiration.  Your best move is to seek more information by asking good questions: “How do you think this will help?  What potential downsides exist?  What resources will you need to move that idea forward?”  Listen with an “every idea is a good idea” mindset (there will be time to critique later).
  • Watch out for strict rules that stifle creativity. Of course, organizations have rules and protocols that must be followed.  But within those parameters should be ample opportunity to explore and experiment.  You don’t need to install pool tables and beanbag chairs to spur creativity; simply send the message that fresh ideas are not only desired but encouraged and watch what happens.  And if an idea can’t be implemented, explain why.  Don’t let it fall into a black hole of radio silence.
  • Be clear with ends, flexible with means. If you’re going to allow for exploration and experimentation, do it right.  In her highly regarded Harvard Business Review article “How to Kill Creativity,” Dr. Amabile writes: “People will be more creative…if you give them freedom to decide how to climb a particular mountain. You needn’t let them choose which mountain to climb. In fact, clearly specified strategic goals often enhance people’s creativity.”  I think this is especially true for millennials: provide clear goals, encouragement, and a dash of well-intentioned oversight, then stand back and watch ‘em go.
  • Encourage millennials to “own” their ideas. When I was in my 20’s, my best managers not only listened to my ideas but let me work on improving them after considering their feedback.  Consider Nick Bayer, CEO and founder of Saxby’s, who takes that idea further by providing opportunities for college students to run cafes on various campuses.  “A huge amount of opportunity is afforded students stepping into a real leadership role and acting exactly like an owner would,” says John Fry, Drexel’s president. “If there is an incident or an opportunity to do something innovative, they are the ones that deal with that. They can’t wait for Nick to come down and settle matters for them.”

Top musicians reach peak performance with training and practice.  It’s the same for millennials in the workplace.  Millennials are the most tech-savvy, socially active generation in history.  Most are ambitious, receptive to coaching, and take genuine pride in their work.  Don’t let a talented employee walk out the door because you failed to play the right chords.  You’ll find that with the proper direction, you can save your head-banging for rock concerts (if you’re into that kind of thing) and make some truly vibrant music together.

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