Don’t Manage Me Like a Millennial

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Editor’s Note: This week, TLNT is counting down the most popular posts of 2010. This is No. 9 in our Top 25. We’ll continue to do this through New Year’s Eve. Our regular content will return on Monday January 3, 2011.

If there is one thing that will get me going early in the morning, it’s this whole idea of a multi-generational workforce issue being presented as something shiny and new.

It’s like previous decades of workplaces, where 20, 40 and 60 year-olds worked together, never happened. Or that previous generations didn’t bring in expertise in new technology when they entered the job market.

So when I see a generational guru speak to HR audiences, they are usually from the Boomer generation and they are usually talking to the audience like they are giving out some sort of secret code. They want to talk about how Millennials are born to multitask, are entrepreneurial, enjoy collaborative learning environments, want constant feedback, and are entitled workplace brats. The person speaking will unlock the code once and for all!

The problem? It won’t work.

Dissecting the issue

When you get the millennial issue out of the hands of people who use fear or confusion to fuel their consulting or product business, the problem becomes much more clear. People who are selling solutions don’t know what the actual problem is. They think it is either Millennials have an issue or the manager doesn’t understand how to work with Millennials in a progressive way.

I was at an HR conference recently listening to a speaker talk about managing Millennial employees. When it came time to ask questions, I asked the person what if a Millennial like myself didn’t like to be constantly praised, or liked working by himself as much as with a team, or didn’t feel entitled to move up any sooner than anyone else? Should a person still manage that person like they want to do all of that, or should they change their approach?

While the presenter wrote me off as an outlier, I had an interesting discussion among some of the other people around me (primarily HR Directors at mid-level to Fortune 1000 firms). One of the people said that we can probably determine what the average pay is for a Millennial but we wouldn’t ever consider basing our own pay off of it. We all agreed that using this one-size-fits-all approach is guaranteed to be wrong for at least some of your employee population.

In the mess, some real issues

As part of the discussion, we also figured out that there were some real issues to talk about but they weren’t related to Millennials specifically. For example:

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  • How do you best guide early career professionals in your organization? It doesn’t matter if they are 25 or 55, if they are new to their job or new to the industry, they need resources, time, mentors and support. And depending on the situation they are coming from, they might also need individualized support on certain issues.
  • How do you deal with folks who think they can multitask? How do you deal with anyone who thinks they are good at something they are not so good at? Neil Howe and Reena Nadler tackled this in their post earlier on TLNT, but it certainly isn’t by being an enabler. You’ve got to handle it like any performance issue at work.
  • How much should we bend to an employee’s individual needs? The business has needs and the employee has needs and everything works best when things are in alignment. In some cases though, employee and employer needs are going to conflict, and as an organization, you need to decide how much bending you’re comfortable with.

All of these questions have broader workplace implications than just Millennials, but things are never framed that way. They are always framed through the prism of generational differences — and that has to stop.

Where Millennials actually get tripped up

Most of my close friends are Millennials and since they knew I was in HR, they often vented to me about work. Did they talk about how they should be a VP by now, or how there wasn’t enough collaboration, or that social network access was restricted or monitored? Nope. Here’s what they did mention though:

  • One was put into a management role with no previous experience even after he openly questioned the move as being premature.
  • One talked about how the goals at work were vague and how many in the company openly question the staffing levels there.
  • Another talked about how the company continued to make the same mistakes over and over again on a particular product and that it was a bureaucratic mess to try to change it.

Still others have talked about sexual harassment by a boss, silly regulations regarding use of holiday pay, or poisonous co-workers. Are these complaints of Millennials or could they be any worker in your organization? I know I’ve heard these complaints in the past from all levels of my workforce.

The real problem: a leadership void

When you put generational experts out of mind for a second, you realize that better management and better leadership would take care of most of these problems. Not that this is the first time HR vendors and consultants have over-engineered a problem, but it seems to be one of the most egregious.

If you treat your employees with respect, if you are clear to them what your expectations are, if you give them the resources to accomplish the job, and if you provide regular formal and informal feedback, not only will your Millennial problem magically fix itself, but I’m guessing many of your other employee issues will be solved too. If you can’t solve these issues, it makes no sense to try to tackle the Millennial problem first.

Lastly, if you are going to take into account individual needs and desires when managing your employees, you should do it based on an employee’s actual needs and desires rather than stereotypical ones. While multi-generational management may be the hot management technique of the day, rejecting it for a more simple and logical system that gets results is the best way to fill that leadership void.

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
 
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.

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