Don’t Manage Me Like a Millennial

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If there is one thing that will get me going early in the morning, it’s this whole idea of a multi-generational workforce issue being presented as something shiny and new.

It’s like previous decades of workplaces, where 20, 40 and 60 year-olds worked together, never happened. Or that previous generations didn’t bring in expertise in new technology when they entered the job market.

So when I see a generational guru speak to HR audiences, they are usually from the Boomer generation and they are usually talking to the audience like they are giving out some sort of secret code. They want to talk about how Millennials are born to multitask, are entrepreneurial, enjoy collaborative learning environments, want constant feedback, and are entitled workplace brats. The person speaking will unlock the code once and for all!

The problem? It won’t work.

Dissecting the issue

When you get the millennial issue out of the hands of people who use fear or confusion to fuel their consulting or product business, the problem becomes much more clear. People who are selling solutions don’t know what the actual problem is. They think it is either Millennials have an issue or the manager doesn’t understand how to work with Millennials in a progressive way.

I was at an HR conference recently listening to a speaker talk about managing Millennial employees. When it came time to ask questions, I asked the person what if a Millennial like myself didn’t like to be constantly praised, or liked working by himself as much as with a team, or didn’t feel entitled to move up any sooner than anyone else? Should a person still manage that person like they want to do all of that, or should they change their approach?

While the presenter wrote me off as an outlier, I had an interesting discussion among some of the other people around me (primarily HR Directors at mid-level to Fortune 1000 firms). One of the people said that we can probably determine what the average pay is for a Millennial but we wouldn’t ever consider basing our own pay off of it. We all agreed that using this one-size-fits-all approach is guaranteed to be wrong for at least some of your employee population.

In the mess, some real issues

As part of the discussion, we also figured out that there were some real issues to talk about but they weren’t related to Millennials specifically. For example:

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  • How do you best guide early career professionals in your organization? It doesn’t matter if they are 25 or 55, if they are new to their job or new to the industry, they need resources, time, mentors and support. And depending on the situation they are coming from, they might also need individualized support on certain issues.
  • How do you deal with folks who think they can multitask? How do you deal with anyone who thinks they are good at something they are not so good at? Neil Howe and Reena Nadler tackled this in their post earlier on TLNT, but it certainly isn’t by being an enabler. You’ve got to handle it like any performance issue at work.
  • How much should we bend to an employee’s individual needs? The business has needs and the employee has needs and everything works best when things are in alignment. In some cases though, employee and employer needs are going to conflict, and as an organization, you need to decide how much bending you’re comfortable with.

All of these questions have broader workplace implications than just Millennials, but things are never framed that way. They are always framed through the prism of generational differences — and that has to stop.

Where Millennials actually get tripped up

Most of my close friends are Millennials and since they knew I was in HR, they often vented to me about work. Did they talk about how they should be a VP by now, or how there wasn’t enough collaboration, or that social network access was restricted or monitored? Nope. Here’s what they did mention though:

  • One was put into a management role with no previous experience even after he openly questioned the move as being premature.
  • One talked about how the goals at work were vague and how many in the company openly question the staffing levels there.
  • Another talked about how the company continued to make the same mistakes over and over again on a particular product and that it was a bureaucratic mess to try to change it.

Still others have talked about sexual harassment by a boss, silly regulations regarding use of holiday pay, or poisonous co-workers. Are these complaints of Millennials or could they be any worker in your organization? I know I’ve heard these complaints in the past from all levels of my workforce.

The real problem: a leadership void

When you put generational experts out of mind for a second, you realize that better management and better leadership would take care of most of these problems. Not that this is the first time HR vendors and consultants have over-engineered a problem, but it seems to be one of the most egregious.

If you treat your employees with respect, if you are clear to them what your expectations are, if you give them the resources to accomplish the job, and if you provide regular formal and informal feedback, not only will your Millennial problem magically fix itself, but I’m guessing many of your other employee issues will be solved too. If you can’t solve these issues, it makes no sense to try to tackle the Millennial problem first.

Lastly, if you are going to take into account individual needs and desires when managing your employees, you should do it based on an employee’s actual needs and desires rather than stereotypical ones. While multi-generational management may be the hot management technique of the day, rejecting it for a more simple and logical system that gets results is the best way to fill that leadership void.


12 Comments on “Don’t Manage Me Like a Millennial

  1. I believe this discussion is one of the “sexy” discussions. I am bored and annoyed by it. Categorizing people is easier then understanding them. Sticking to the stats, studies and questionnaire is more manageable for some.

    The simple fact: these ideas and attitudes are a crutch. An excuse for those leaders/managers/supervisors who do not get to know their people in terms of the work they do, how they do it and whether or not they enjoy it.
    Just talk to people.

  2. I argued this point many times when I was Editor over at Workforce, and I’ll say it again here at TLNT: The Millennial generation (born 1980 or later) is no better or worse than any other generation that came before. Yes, they have their own unique generational issues, but in my close experience with them, Millennials reflect what you find in other generations and society as a whole — some are good, some average, some clueless.

    In my personal experience with the Millennial generation, I have found that there is no one way to characterize or manage them. The three Millennials that I am closely related to are as different as any three people you would find on a street corner. And the classroom of Millennials that I teach writing to each semester at a local university follows this same pattern.

    In other words, there is no single way to manage or deal with the Millennial generation, just as there is no single way to manage any other generation that exists in today’s workplace. And, the notion that the Millennial generation is so unique and different from generations before them is nonsense. They are different, yes, but so is every other generation. That’s the point I think Lance is making here, and he’s right on the money.

    Frankly, I’m tired of people touting themselves as Millennial “experts,” because you just need a good manager to deal with not only Millennials but everyone else in the workforce as well. Why can’t we stop seeing people as part of some larger, all encompassing group and instead, more as individuals with unique skills and experiences that they bring to the table? The sooner we do that, the better our organizations will be.

  3. I think the leadership void is attentiveness: whether or not they’re Millennials, people will have different needs and leaders need to know what drives each member of their team. Millennials were exposed to social networks, instant communication, life online much earlier than those in other generations, and many come to work with different expectations (a Millennial colleague of mine thinks so) but that doesn’t mean they all will. Similarly, many people who aren’t Millennials have quickly become immersed in social networking and life online – their expectations are changing too. Is this trend a function of the increasing percentage of Millennials in the workforce or shifting expectations created by new technologies and globalization? I think it’s the latter. Karie Willyerd, former Chief Learning Officer at Sun Microsystems, is talking about this in an upcoming webinar:

  4. Why is bashing millennial wrong? Because they are us. As I wrote elsewhere on the topic:

    What do I see in GenY? A group of young employees who want the same things from work and behave in very much the way I did when I was their age. And if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll likely admit the same. Sure they want to be at the top. That’s where the action is. They know they have to work hard to get there, though. But if you’re not giving them the “gold stars” – meaningful feedback on their work and praise when they do it well – how will they know they’re doing the right thing? Their drive does create one big challenge for business today – creating opportunities for them to grow into greater responsibility and contribution quickly, and remaining true to the company values at the same time.

    It’s unfair to label any group of people based on one feature, whether that be age range, skin color or gender. The same applies with GenY. I like how Jason Seiden referred to such practices — “I personally believe that ascribing personality differences to groups of people based on their birthdays is nothing more than astrology.”

    Perhaps that’s what we should term this silly “generational” discussion — “HRstrology”

  5. A lot of your tips on managing millennials also work with employees with disabilities. We couldn’t agree more with this statement: “If you are going to take into account individual needs and desires when managing your employees, you should do it based on an employee’s ACTUAL needs and desires rather than stereotypical ones.” Way to think beyond the label!

  6. Excellent point. Millennials are humans, not aliens. If you take any generation and back them up in time to the same age as Millennials are right now, you’d have similarities. There are some differences in motivation, but everyone wants to be valued, mentored and empowered. I think we can over complicate the process sometimes, when leadership development is what it is. Everyone can use it, everyone can benefit from it.

  7. The problem here is that too many employers are trying to cover their ineffectiveness in interviewing, on-boarding, and the training of new-hires. Most new-hires make a career decision within the first week to 10 days on the job. Millennials for the most part will quickly move on if the job appears to have no future and if they feel undervalued. For quite some time we have used an assessment appropriately called the Millenials from HRDT ( It rates and ranks job suitability along with “attitude” and motivation. We use ir for pre-hire and then follow the workbook for post-hire development of candidates we actually hire. The main issue with millennials is management’s effort to build an actual “Communication Link” with the individual. Young people will work hard because they want to succeed – but – they are careful to seek out Companies that provide the resources that allow them to succeed. High turnover is generally caused by ineffective coaching skills of managers and supervisors.

  8. Great article. I’ve been leading teams for 25 years with just a few simple rules – treat each other with respect and dignity; lead by example; establish performance expectations up front and be consistent in holding everyone accountable to them; regular feedback (positive and areas for improvement); say thank you. People are people and in general we have all responded the same way in a given work situation no matter the generation.

  9. The reason for the focus on the multi-generational workplace is that never before in the history of the American workforce have we had 5 generations present and working together. At our company we have a large population of both teenagers and folks in their early and mid-70’s. This actually is a new phenomena, and does bring with it additional challenges due to the increased diversity of ages trying to work collaboratively on teams. Believe me, it’s noticeable, and managers do need additional training and tools to lead effectively. It’s true that there are time-tested management tools that work well when implemented. However, the economy is impacting the workplace as people no longer may have the luxury of retiring at 60-something, and steep university tuition is causing kids to enter the workforce en masse. It is not business-as-usual or business-as-always when you have 6 decades of age difference between employees.

  10. As a member of the baby boomer generation, I applaud you. While we all like to poke fun at the different generations (and I include my own), the idea that we are all one cookie-cutter form when it comes to work (or life) is ludicrous.

    At the risk of getting too philosophical, a good part of what is wrong today is our need to label and stereotype. It’s not right or wrong – it’s just different.

  11. Good points.  As the workforce turns from Boomers to 17-30 year olds, training young managers will be a critical component of HR skills.  But no one likes to be pigeon-holed or classified by their age, even if they do, inevitably, think differently, have a different skill set and view of working.

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