Make Yourself a Millennial-Ready Manager; Millennials Part II of II

by Jean Marie Johnson
To read Part I, click here.

This is a story about "the good old days."  It was a time when your boss said:

  • "This is the way we do it."
  • "It's mandatory."
  • "Well, the policy says..."
And you knew just what you had to do. You may have wondered, and you may even have ventured a polite question. But, more than likely, you followed orders and you did it. Then, at your annual performance appraisal, you brought up the pressing matter of your career goals. You asked about that coveted next rung on the ladder and when you might see yourself there. Your boss looked at you knowingly and said, "You have to pay your dues." And pay you did.

You followed marching orders, you stuck to the policy and you were nothing short of a dedicated, nose to the grindstone subordinate. Until one day, many years later, you found yourself a few rungs up on that very same ladder, saying to your millennial newbies: "Well, this is the way we do it. It's mandatory because the policy says..." And, looking at you like you have two ears of corn growing out of your head, she says: "But why? That doesn't make sense to me. I was thinking that we could...."

Welcome to the communication generation gap. It's a "gap" that expresses itself in words, but is in fact a reflection of a difference in mindset, expectation and approach to work. The good news is that it can be bridged...if you are willing to do so. But first we have a take a step back to consider where on earth our millennial employee is coming from.

The Constant Contact Generation

You may recall from Part One of this article, that Millennials are accustomed to a great deal of parental input and oversight. In the workplace, they expect, want, and generally need a high level of manager engagement. More specifically, they:
  • Are accustomed to collaborating with their parents... and expect to do the same with everyone at work, regardless of level or position.  
  • Scrutinize what they see and hear... and will question why, ”really?" and why not?
  • Expect to innovate what they touch...seeking to make things better
  • Prefer to have choices...whenever possible.
Clearly, these norms call for a different conversation if you want your Millennial employee to be highly-engaged, committed and fully-contributing.
Now, let's be honest...If we are stuck, yes, stuck in a Baby Boomer mindset characterized by earning your way, respecting authority, and following the rules, we might take issue with what could be perceived as impudence, arrogance, or a complete ignorance about how things work. Have I been there? Yes, I have had my moments with a certain 23 year old, and another 26 year old, so I understand.
I also understand that the first issue is our own; it is seeing these Millennial behaviors as positive, or, at the very least, neutral. We will not be able to bring out the best in them—or in ourselves as managers—unless we do.

Millennials on Millennials

A group of Millennials weighed in this very subject in a September, 2010 Wall Street Journal article. When asked what advice they'd give their "advice-giving elders," they said:

  • Question your assumptions: what worked in your youth might have little relevance today.
  • Offer suggestions, not pronouncements: say "you could" not "you should."
  • Welcome a dialogue: listen, don't lecture; you'll learn things and be able to give better advice.
  • Resist saying: "when I was young..." because we'll shut down.
  • Don't belittle technology: if you're critical of social media, you might be dismissed as a dinosaur.
  • Accept your limitations: we understand the world today.

Don't Go There

On the surface, these don't look so bad, or so hard to do. In fact, they sound like good management practices. But we also know how easy is it to launch into a monologue that sounds something like this:

  • You know, you really don't need to check that thing every other minute. You should just look at your messages every hour or so; anything more than that is just a distraction. When I was your age, we didn't need to be "connected" all of the time. In fact, we had secretaries who took messages for us on little pink "While you were out” sheets. We had telephones, on our desks! We didn't have to worry about technology working or not working, and we didn't....
Ah, yes, in a matter of seconds we manage to assume, pronounce, lecture, reminisce, put down technology and get on nothing short of a tragic carpet ride to the past. It feels good there because it's familiar; it's when and what shaped us.

And that's the point: our millennial employees are both shaping and being shaped by today's workplace, not the one that launched us. Are you willing to meet them here, in this "new" place?

Create a Relationship

Here's the good news:  Millennials grew up responding to role models. Many of them had coaches, advisors, and tutors nurturing and developing them...all in addition to their parents. They are comfortable with the attention. But here's the rub, Millennials will:

  • listen to and place their trust in people they respect for their knowledge and success, not for their title or tenure.
  • listen to a boss, coach or mentor who makes them feel special  and who reinforces their self confidence.

Thomas G. Crane, author of The Heart of Coaching, makes these insightful suggestions about how to effectively manage a Millennial:

  • Take time to get to know them and their personal interests
  • Engage them in discussions and decisions in organizational matters that affect them
  • Make sure the work they are assigned is interesting to them, and offers a chance to learn and grow
  • Connect their specific roles to the big picture and demonstrate how their role and contribution creates a positive impact on the whole
  • Share your true feelings about organizational issues so learn to trust your authenticity
  • Use your best people skills in communicating with and coaching them (listening, drawing out, empathy)
  • Help them get the most out of every job position and point out the benefits to them in their career

Word Power!

Okay, so let's say that you've taken that first step; you've started acting on these suggestions, as best you can. Now, how do you keep it going?

Many have noted that the key to managing the aspirations of Millennials is their deep desire for appreciation. This means that you need to continue to pay attention to how you communicate, to be mindful of not getting stuck in your boomer auto-pilot. If starting from a place of positive acknowledgement is not your preference, begin with that self awareness...and work on it. To make a Millennial, or anyone for that matter, feel appreciated, use language that makes them feel valued, encouraged and respected.  Dr. Sujansky and Dr. Ferri-Reed identify three types of wording that works:

  • Words of inclusion: Refer to your department as our team, "we," and to "our" customers and "our" goals. Inclusion creates both buy-in and ownership.
  • Words of empowerment: Show that you are confident in them with phrases such as "I knew you'd be great at that," and "that is such a strength of yours."
  • Words of success: Instead of "deadlines" and "due dates," which are mechanistic and echo compliance, tap into a desire to contribute by referring to "goals" and "targets" which speak to achievement.
So, ask yourself: How different is this framing from how I usually communicate? How challenging will it be for me to frame my communication in appreciative, positive, inclusive ways?

Frequent, Fabulous Feedback

A good deal of your "constant contact" will take the form of providing feedback. And while the following feedback guidelines can be effective with employees of all ages, they are especially applicable to Millennials.

Feedback Guidelines
  1. Be specific and timely...the sooner, the better, and make it frequent
  2. Focus on performance they can control
  3. Emphasize the positive
  4. Discuss how their contribution connects to the bigger picture
  5. Ask and show appreciation for their feedback
Now ask yourself: What are your current strengths in terms of these feedback guidelines? Which of these guidelines could you focus on—and-how—to make your feedback more effective?

You Have to Go There

So, you have a performance concern, or you've identified a necessary developmental opportunity. Now what? Well, don't chicken out and certainly don't side-step it. You have to go there. Start by reminding yourself that Millennials respond much better to a pat on the back, than a kick in the you-know-what. Translation: whenever possible, frame your constructive feedback within the context of the positive. And remember, most Millennials expect to partner with you. Some wording ideas:

  • "Marcus, I'm especially happy with how you [fill in the blank with a specific contribution or result]. I'd like to see you focus on/improve[fill in the specifics]which will really help you be even more successful here. What do you think?"
  • "I appreciate that you've been working on [fill in the behavior/skill that needs work], Amanda. Here's what I'd suggest[fill in the approach/next step to address the need] so that your total performance is where we need it to be. What are you willing to commit to and what do you need to do so?"
  • "Let's plan to review your progress on your commitment[fill in time frame]."

Be the Model, Build the Bridge

I can tell you this: I have been humbled by my relationships with the Millennials in my life. They have reinforced for me some of life's most valuable lessons:

  • That to really listen with an open mind and an open heart means suspending all judgment
  • That there is a time to be the teacher, and a time to be the student
  • That authenticity is truly the fast-track to meaningful relationships
I don't know what they will teach you. But here's your chance:  There you are, these many years later, and your Milllennial employee pops into your office and says: "Hey, I had this awesome idea about how we could..."

How do you respond?

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.
Before and After
Before and After
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