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A young woman sitting alone on a bench and looking discouraged

We Interrupt Your Complaint About a Millennial Employee with This Message

When my brother had grown into a man and a successful entrepreneur, he wrote a letter of thanks to our dad. It was a sentiment that could only emerge in time because the lessons learned were hard-earned. My father has always believed that a parent’s primary job is to teach their children, and he approached that responsibility with, well, let’s call it intensity.

But despite the gratitude my brother expressed in his letter, when he had children of his own, he did not adopt my father’s parenting style. He was less authoritative, more egalitarian, and gentler. Why? Because he remembered how scared he felt as a boy. He didn’t want his kids to have the same experience, so he raised his Millennial children very differently than he was raised by his Baby Boomer parents.

This is not newsworthy. It has been widely reported that parenting styles have changed dramatically in the most recent generation: the space where “helicopter” and “snowplow parents” were born. Yet many of these same mothers and fathers go to work and endlessly gripe about the attitudes and habits of Millennial employees. Though their grievances may be valid, digging in on an “us versus them” mentality does not help develop teams that reach organizational goals. 

As Elizabeth McLeod, a Millennial and cum laude graduate of Boston University, said in her open letter to management published in Forbes: “Pointing out our sometimes irresponsible spending and fear of interpersonal commitment isn’t going to solve your problem. You still need us. We’re the ones who’ve mastered social media, who have the energy of a thousand suns, and who will knock back 5-dollar macchiatos until the job is done perfectly.” 

To Elizabeth’s point, we do need Millennials in the workforce, so the question is, how do we navigate the differences that emerge across the generational divide? Answer: Stop focusing on your differences and find your similarities.

You likely have more in common with your Millennial employees than you’d care to admit. As you spit out your coffee in consternation, allow me to illustrate with a few simple questions. 

When you were a new employee, just entering the workforce, would you have preferred:

  • The ability to do your work in a flexible manner that met both your needs and the organization’s needs, or working from an office on a schedule set for you?

  • Receiving timely, ongoing feedback on your performance, or finding out how you were doing once or twice a year via a formalized process?

  • Having your perspectives and ideas welcomed right away, or keeping your thoughts to yourself until you had more tenure?

Perhaps our righteous indignation comes not just from what Millennial employees are asking for, but why they think they should have something that we didn’t. Isn’t this why we so often label them “entitled”? But Millennial kids were afforded privileges and choices that non-Millennial kids weren’t. When they enter the workforce, why would they expect to have less agency than they had when they were seven years old and providing input on whether the family should vacation in Hawaii or Disney World?

This doesn’t mean that leaders need to cede control to their junior staff, but what if we approached the challenge of establishing boundaries and setting expectations with understanding versus derision? 

Returning to the subject of raising children—and with a nod to my dad—it is part of a parent’s job to teach kids. We reinforce positive behaviors, and we try to correct maladaptive ones. While neurologists have discovered that “criticism inhibits the brain’s ability to learn” (Harvard Business Review, March-April 2019, “Why Feedback Fails” by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall), most children innately know that their parents love them. That caring is what makes the situation safer for them to learn: even when they are getting negative feedback.

When we were coming up professionally, the concept of emotional safety had no place at work, but times have changed. For his book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Daniel Coyle spent four years researching some of the world’s most successful groups, and he identified three skills that facilitate winning cultures. The first is building safety. (And he isn’t talking about first aid kits and fire drills.)

Employees can’t feel safe—and therefore won’t be able to benefit from feedback or coaching—if their leaders are judging and insulting them. Here is a telling quotation from “Don’t Call Us Millennnials” in Time: “Millennials are disdainful of their generational name and all that’s associated with it. It’s not hard to understand why some Millennials might want to distance themselves from an identity that has often been equated with being self-absorbed, whiny and spoiled.”

Those of us who were born before the early 1980s grew up in a “children are to be seen and not heard” world, and we didn’t much care for it. As a result, we raised our children differently, but now we complain about how these same young adults show up in the workplace. While it may be necessary to spend some time coaching and re-training some deeply ingrained habits in younger employees, we could do it with more grace, humility, and maybe even a smidge of accountability. If we do, maybe one day we’ll receive a letter of thanks like the one my dad received from my brother. Although we may have to settle for a tweet. You know how these Millennials are. 

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