How does one create an environment in which Millennial newbies coming up in the organization can hone the skills they’ll need to fill your shoes?
Here are a handful of ideas:
Don’t get angry when a Millennial asks “why.”
According to the stereotype, Millennials obsessively need to know the reason behind everything they’re asked to do. (As a leader, you should strive to avoid the word “why” when questioning a subordinate in order to facilitate useful, two-way communication, but that’s another blog.)
What if “why” comes at you from below, perhaps in the form of the question, “Hey boss, why are we doing this?”
Many bosses don’t react well when asked “why” from a subordinate. However, instead of becoming defensive or angry that an uppity employee asked you a question, you should sincerely process what he asked.
Why DOES the organization do what it does? Is it because that’s the way it’s always been done? Are there processes that used to be valuable, but now function mostly as time-wasting busywork?
If you can’t provide an immediate and valid answer to the question “why do we do this?” then you as the boss are the one with the problem, not your inquisitive Millennial employee.
In fact, you should be actively canvassing your employees to ask them what they think so that they don’t have to throw a “why” at you. Nobody in your organization has a better notion of what processes are worthwhile and which aren’t than the people who are down in the trenches actually performing them. The more you know about the tactical operations of your business, the better strategic decisions you’ll be able to make.
Don’t buy into the argument that “they all got trophies and now they all want to be the CEO without putting in the time or work”
This is nonsense on stilts. Rational people don’t equate receiving a keepsake for having played on the U10 soccer team with being owed a corner office as an adult. First of all, don’t think that the kids don’t know who really won the game. They know. They might be kids, but they’re not stupid. Secondly, there have always been, and will always be people who feel like they’re owed more than what the rest of the world thinks they’re owed. The Millennial generation didn’t invent this phenomenon.
The answer from a leadership perspective is to publish, in writing, the organization’s rules, procedures and expectations as clearly as possible, effectively “putting your brain on paper.” Once everyone knows what the boundaries are and what success looks like, it suddenly becomes much easier to talk to them about how their behavior at work equates to their station in life. “You did X. Sally did Y. The procedures value Y. Therefore, Sally received a promotion and you did not.”
The other option is to keep that information in your head, or worse, to make it up on the fly. Doing this puts your employees in a position in which they’re trying to read your mind to figure out what they need to do, maybe even from day to day. The delusional ones, regardless of their generational label, will think that they’re doing great and deserve the corner office. The solid ones will often think they’re not doing enough.
Don’t equate a desire for work-life balance with weakness
Millennials are thought to value work-life balance over traditional markers of success, such as compensation and lofty titles. Because of that, Millennials won’t spend 40+ years at the same company working their way up from the mailroom to the boardroom. Instead, they hop from job to job leaving as soon as a perceived better deal pops up, or simply dump the job entirely in favor of a last-minute flight to Ibiza.
Once again, Millennials didn’t invent this phenomenon. For instance, in my decades of experience in the Air Force, I’ve watched fighter pilots make the choice to leave the service for an airline cockpit for a perceived better quality of life. People have always and will always make personal life decisions based on their subjective view of the benefits of their alternatives.
The Internet, social media in particular, has made the world so small that each of us has a bead on nearly every opportunity out there the nanosecond it pops up, thus making it easier, more appealing, to jump from one to the next. Millennials have only known this instant-access world, but the technology affects everyone. Plenty of Gen-Xers are out there online looking for the bigger, better deals too.
The answer for you as the boss lies in the two previous recommendations. Don’t be afraid to make changes that affect quality of life, and always make the rules visible to everyone.
For instance, when an employee asks “Why don’t we create a flex-schedule so I can work from noon to 8pm?” don’t take it as insubordination. Really think about it. If it doesn’t negatively affect the organization, put it in writing so everyone knows the rules and give it a try.
Doing out-of-the-box things that makes people happy (and thus, more productive) doesn’t make you seem weak. On the flip side, holding on to the old ways for no other reason than to simply manifest your dominance makes you look like a tyrant.
I’m not arguing that there isn’t a grain of truth to the Millennial stereotype. However, I think that the stereotype is an observation of human nature more than an accident of birthdate. Human nature doesn’t change, but the environment does. Gen-Xers grew up as latchkey kids watching MTV, and their behavior reflected their reaction to that environment. Millennials have grown up with the Internet and social media, and their behavior reflects that as well.
To be the most effective boss you can be, you need to adapt your style to get the most from the individuals who walk through the door, regardless of the stereotype they bring with them.
About the author:
Lt Col Jeff Orr serves as a veteran F-16 instructor pilot for the US Air Force. An expert on high-stress training environments, elite performance, mindset management, and the development of unstoppable organizational cultures, Orr shares his many insights on panels, stages, and in workshops. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.