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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

3 Truths About Millennials That Will Change the Way You Manage Them

During my HR career, it’s been difficult to ignore the uptick in managers complaining about the still (relatively new) challenge of managing Millennials, a generation often perceived as markedly independent and stubborn. If you Google “managing Millennials,” you’ll find a slew of tips for handling this “difficult breed” of employees. YouTube has a ton of hyperbolic videos. While many are tongue-in-cheek, they speak to the miscommunications that can occur across a multi-generational workforce.

However, Millennials really do want to accomplish great things and contribute to the organizations they work for. It’s in the best interest of their managers to support those goals and leverage their strengths.

What’s the Big Deal?

I would hope that the Millennial and Gen Y-bashing is as much of a fad as kale, butter coffee, and Flappy Bird. But really, this kind of “kids these days” rhetoric from older generations is just history repeating itself. For the most part, Millennials and recent grads aren’t uniquely any more disruptive to the workforce than Gen Xers or Boomers were. When Gen X (born in the mid-1960s to early 1980s) entered the workforce, their Boomer elders were equally irritated and portrayed them as aspirational slackers, characterizing them as cynical, infantile, distrustful of institutions and impractical, among other things. Starting to sound familiar?

With that said, there are three unique qualities of young workers that pose real challenges for their managers simply because they appear to go against the typical office norm. Understanding these qualities and addressing them won’t just make their managers’ lives easier, but it will also help make Millennials more productive.

1. Asking “Why?”

Picture this: Two direct reports—one a Gen Xer and the other a Millennial—meet with their boss. The boss introduces a project and gives few specifics. What happens next? In my experience, the Gen X employee says “yes” without questioning the manager’s decision process or the suggested approach (planning to figure it out as she goes). The recent grad, however, wants to understand “why” before getting to work, and a slew of questions ensue.

This contrast can make the Millennial look disrespectful or like a know-it-all. But that’s not the case. Pivotal events like Woodstock and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, Sexual Revolution and the Cold War had profound effects on Millennials’ parents and fostered inquisitive children who were often asked for their opinion.

So what does this mean for you, the manager?

Often, the best approach is to contextualize your decisions—for all of your employees. For starters, you never know when they might have good suggestions or input. Moreover, clueing your employees into your decision-making will help them think through their own contributions and projects in light of the company’s bigger picture.

Related: 3 Things to Say to Your Team Instead of “Because I Said So”

2. Envying Startup Culture

Traditional workplaces thrive on structure. Far fewer Boomers have come to me to discuss eagerness to move beyond their cubicles than some of their younger colleagues. I’ve found that pre-Millennial employees, while certainly daydreaming as much as any other generation of striking it rich and living a life of luxury, are relatively more at peace with high cubicle walls. Certainly, ping-pong tables, unlimited vacation days, and the option to set your own schedule are fairly recent additions to workplace culture.

When you think of Millennials, you might think “startups.” Beyond the free snacks and blue jeans, startups can be smaller, take an all-hands-on-deck approach, and allow people with less experience to experiment with more prestigious roles. Millennials don’t have to wait as long to be the director of a department and manage a team because the ladder is shorter, the learning curve is higher, and the achievement of status and impact is much faster. This enables staff to feel more impactful and see how they’re contributing to the company’s mission.

So what does this mean for you, the manager?

Do your employees have a stake in the company? Not the stock options kind of stake—though, that works, too—but I’d suggest empowering everyone. In my experience, Millennials want to own a project, run with it, and make a real, measurable difference.

3. Desiring Feedback (Early and Often)

As a Millennial, I like to generate ideas, flesh out part of my plan, and then get feedback from my manager. It’s against my nature to do something methodically (and patiently!) and then present him with one final, polished product. Why? Because I desperately want to get feedback (OK, also praise), along the way for motivation—and so I can integrate that feedback into the final product.

I work best with this cycle of prototyping, getting feedback, and repeating. I like to work independently, but I also want to check in to make sure I’m on track.

So what does this mean for you, the manager?

My supervisor strikes a balance of managing collaboratively and granting autonomy. He knows I respond better to a coach than I do to a director. So, instead of telling your employees to “figure it out” and come back with a final product, consider building in additional sessions for brainstorming and feedback.

Today’s younger workers are here to stay. And if you can manage to tap into the Millennial talent market (which is massive, of course), your company will have a serious competitive advantage. If you’re willing to be flexible and supportive, you’ll be amazed at what your Millennial employees will achieve.

Photo of people working courtesy of Shutterstock.

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