My whip-smart niece visited me last month. She’s about a year into her first real job and I was curious about her take on the well-documented divide between millennials and other generations. As an organizational development consultant, I thought I possessed some insight into this complex dynamic. I‘d read several articles, watched a popular Simon Sinek interview on millennial workers, and had my own first-hand experience. What she said, however, surprised me.
“People over forty treat me like I’m their daughter. I guess they can’t quite reconcile my age with my ability to contribute. They don’t have bad intentions. The relationships they have with people my age are mostly familial. Discussing a project with me in-person or online is way out of context for them. The whole situation is confusing. For me, too.”
“Sure, I have a lot less real-world experience than many of my colleagues, but I offer a different perspective. I grew up digitally connected at home and at school. I think I’m more inclined towards working collaboratively.”
I was intrigued by her insight. When I said so, she said:
“From the time we were kindergarteners, people my age worked on projects with other kids, and with teacher’s aides and teachers. We talked about what we were doing. We figured things out together. We didn’t sit in rows and raise our hand with the perfect answer. We teamed up.”
Since creating collaborative cultures has been my life’s work, I wondered what she learned at a very early age that's made her generation better collaborators. What can a manager do to leverage the generational differences?
My niece thinks outside the box. Tech-savvy millennials make connections that aren’t obvious to us non-millennials. Perhaps they are more tolerant of the discovery process and less attached to quickly coming up with the “right” answer.
- Management Tip. Watch for simply giving direction and waiting for your direct report to come back with the deliverable. How often do you take the time to talk things through with your millennial direct reports? The process may help you see things differently and enhance your younger colleague’s perspective and contribution.
My niece has a global view. Growing up, I made friends in my neighborhood. My niece made friends in her neighborhood and on the other side of the world!
- Management Tip. Your millennial employees can help you cultivate business connections, and broaden your horizons, through social technology. How much time are you spending learning from them? Your employees innately understand the business benefits of social networking. Let them teach you.
My niece loves to learn. Millennials want their managers to help them get better – through developmental assignments, exposure, and mentoring.
- Management Tip. Offer developmental opportunities even if they don’t produce an immediate business ROI. How well are you cultivating mentoring and co-learning relationships among younger workers and between millennials and other senior leaders?
My niece is attracted to purposeful work. Like many millennials, my niece wants her work to matter.
- Management Tip. When delegating or conducting status update meetings, describe the big picture and connect that picture with the significance of their work and contribution. How well are you providing your millennial employees with a sense of purpose?
Generational bias at work is constructed by senior managers and older workers who grew up with different social and work norms. Every new generation has had a story constructed about them that tells why they’re so difficult to work with. Baby Boomers were overly optimistic hippies who wanted to change the world. Gen Xers were self-involved yuppies. Millennials think they can run the company. The bias stays when we don’t spend some time talking with each other and finding ways to cross-pollinate ideas and activities.
The best ways to leverage the talent and commitment of millennial employees, and to increase their retention, is to give them meaningful responsibilities, provide venues to reflect on their experience without judgement, and pay attention to their development.
About Beth O'Neill
During Beth's 22-year tenure with IA, she has served clients in the high-tech, healthcare, financial services, pharmaceuticals, biotech, and manufacturing industries, among others. She serves on IA's Board of Directors. A Connecticut native, Beth holds a bachelor's degree from Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and The Whitman School of Management. She also holds a master's degree from the University of Hartford's School of Communication. Beth is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) by the International Coach Federation. Beth contributed to this article in CLO Magazine, January 2011, and wrote this article on virtual teams in Training Magazine. Read a Wall Street Journal feature article about Beth's team leadership.