Millennials: Separating Facts From Fiction

Generational gaps have an impact in the workplace, but leaders are generally quicker to blame them for office differences than they should be.

I struggle with stereotypes. They can be true, but they’re generalizations, and assuming everyone fits into one category is wrong. OK. But they can be true. That’s tough. How do we know if they’re true or not? How do we know whether to cater to them? If they are true, how do we know if it’s a generational trait or a life stage? Is Gen Y being underpreparedfor the workforce unique to this generation? Were boomers just as underprepared when they began working?

To get answers to my questions I interviewed boomer Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and the executive-in-residence at the Boston College Center for Work & Family in the Carroll School of Management. She is the author of “You Raised Us — Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams.” She broke down years of research she has gathered and told me exactly what learning leaders need to know about my generation to prepare them to succeed in their organizations. rikleen

There’s a lot of buzz around generational data and insights. It can be a lot to sift through. You’ve researched millennials for years, so give me some nuggets of information you think every manager managing millennials should know.

Rikleen:Every manager needs to understand that the negative stereotypes that have preceded millennials in the workplace are not correct. They misread younger workers’ self-confidence, inquisitive nature and need for regular, constructive feedback as a sense of entitlement and an excessive need for praise. Managers are sometimes even resistant to — or threatened by — the technology skills which millennials have mastered since childhood. In addition, few workplace leaders truly understand the impact that the difficult economy — and the corresponding high level of student debt that so many millennials are carrying after graduation — has had on millennials’ choices and goals. If these negative perceptions can be eliminated and the generations can see each other in the positive light they deserve, the results can be transformative for the workplace.

How can leaders tell what’s fact they should act upon, versus what’s a stereotype about the younger generation?

Rikleen:There are many areas where millennials bring different generational characteristics that may warrant shifts in the way workplace training and development is normally conducted. Here are four examples:

1. Feedback: Millennials have grown up with parents, teachers and coaches providing an ongoing feedback loop. They then often find themselves in jobs in which they are given annual reviews and little other feedback. Offering feedback on a regular basis is an essential learning tool and meets their expectations for how millennials have learned throughout their lives.

2. Technology: Managers often miss the extent to which millennials are asked to serve the role as technology teacher, troubleshooting the problems of older workers who need extra help figuring out a problem or understanding a function. In my survey for the book, many respondents reported that they spent inordinate amounts of time troubleshooting other people’s problems. I often raise this point when I am training on generational issues, asking boomers how often they turn to the youngest person in the office to help figure something out on their computer. The response is generally embarrassed laughter as they recognize that they bring into the office the same behaviors they exhibit at home when they seek tech help from their kids. But for millennials with specific job requirements, these regular interruptions are unappreciated and unacknowledged in any formal way. Managers need to look closely at this and put in place mechanisms to recognize, where appropriate, extra work that millennials are regularly performing.

3. Loyalty and work ethic: Contrary to the negative image that many senior leaders have of millennials as not willing to work hard, millennials see themselves as a generation primed to excel, having spent years focused on achievements that would propel them into the best possible college and, subsequently, a good job. In responses to the survey I conducted for “You Raised Us — Now Work With Us,” for example, nearly 95 percent of millennials reported that they are willing to go beyond what is asked of them at work. Their work ethic, however, is often tied to how they feel they are viewed by their managers. When millennials believe they are respected and where they understand their contributions to the overall goals and objectives of the workplace, they are more likely to demonstrate their own commitment in return. Where they feel as though the managers do not have an interest in their growth and development, they feel less inclined to stay.

4. Work-life integration: Research clearly demonstrates that millennials are committed to a life in which family responsibilities and personal health and well-being are not overshadowed by work. They have learned the lessons from the workaholic generations that preceded them and expect that they will be able to use technology to provide the flexibility needed to live a more well-rounded life. They do not view commitment to work-life integration as a lack of commitment to work; rather, they see it as an imperative for a life well-lived.

What kind of skills do these young workers need as they prepare to become leaders?

Rikleen:Millennials have both benefited from and paid a price for the significant parental involvement in their lives, as they may be entering adulthood less skilled at both independent problem-solving and navigating the day-to-day challenges of the workplace. Many millennials may bring into the workplace an expectation of support and a need for clarity in assignments and instruction. As millennials move forward in their careers, they need mentoring, development of problem-solving skills and direct feedback from managers in the workplace. To develop their own leadership skills, millennials may need coaching in how to feel comfortable seeking stretch assignments, handling ambiguity and developing a comfort with taking risks as they hone their skills. Finally, the vast differences in communication styles among the generations in the workplace today means that millennials should be provided training in the communication preferences of their workplace.

How do they want to develop those skills? What can those in charge of corporate learning do to offer that material in a way that’s best for this generation?

One way the workplace can best support millennials as they grow into their future roles is to create a comprehensive employee integration process. By developing an extended orientation and training program, new employees can better integrate millennials into the culture of the workplace and become more fully immersed in understanding the employer’s goals and objectives. Topics for a long-term orientation process can include: the substantive job requirements of various positions and levels, ongoing information about the goals of the workplace and each person’s importance to the organization’s overall success; and strategic career support. Employers who make a meaningful investment in training can use it as an effective recruitment and retention tool as well.

In addition, implementing a strategic process to provide systematic and regular feedback will result in a more effective and loyal workforce. Employers should also consider establishing procedures to encourage employees to share ideas and suggestions. Such steps can include the development of a forum to discuss the pros and cons of ideas presented, appointment of a task force to further investigate suggested technology improvements, or other programs that demonstrate attention to and an interest in new ideas.

Finally, workplaces should consider implementing reverse mentoring programs as a way to bring the generations together, and allow younger employees the opportunity to teach other generations social media and related technology skills, with the added benefit of creating stronger intergenerational relationships.