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Dealing With (Hopefully Not Too) Difficult Millennials

By: Anne Hudson // January 25, 2016


A lot of people have written about millennials. The problems with them, potential ways to fix those problems. They have written about what they want or how they think or how you should treat them. There have been so many of these types of think pieces that some people (probably millennials) have created applications that replace the word “millennial” anytime it appears on the internet to creative alternatives from ‘snake people’ to ‘pesky young whipper-snapper.’ Heck, we here at the Connect blog have even written about millennials before – and here we are doing it again. But all this writing has not been a waste. Unlike other trending topics on the Internet, this is one that deserves its attention. Capability Connections sees millennial/boomer relations and general culture and change management as the biggest issues facing organizations today. Often two meetings in one day will both bring up issues stemming from the generational divide. Many of our courses and services address this challenge and Capability Connection has now gone one step further by bringing a millennial voice to the Connect blog. That’s right, I am myself of the infamous millennial generation. I am writing this from my laptop with several social networking sites open and my cell phone always beside me. I have posted selfies. I have recently graduated from college and yet the thought of buying a house anytime soon is terrifying. I have had several conversations with people my age about needing fulfillment and meaning from my career in the last month alone. This is one of the reasons they have brought me on to the Capability Connections team. I will be bringing my millennial perspective to the Connect Blog by serving as the resident millennial voice. In this and future posts I am going to attempt to bridge the generational gap by applying wisdom this team has gained from over 30 years of experience in human resources and organizational behaviour consulting through a millennial lens to the problems you are experiencing in organizations.

In our Dealing with Difficult People course we present a triangle method for solving disagreements. One bottom corner of the triangle is ‘Know What you Want.’ The other is ‘Know What They Want.’ Only when you know both of these things can you reach the top of the triangle, proposing a solution that works for everyone. So how can we apply this triangle to the problem of a changing workforce with generational differences? Let’s assume that the first corner represents managers of organizations. What do you want out of interactions with millennials? (I am guessing here, but I promise that this post has been edited and reviewed by non-millennials so hopefully I am not too far off). You want new hires that are engaged, loyal, team players who work well in your organization. You want people who are not constantly leaving for better opportunities or demanding unreasonable rewards. You want a solution to the employment-skills gap, which leaves you unable to fill vacancies with effective workers despite higher numbers of college graduates than ever. These are the problems organizations all over the country and they will only increase.

Understanding your side of the triangle is only the first step. Next, you have to really want to understand what the other side wants. In this case, you need to try to understand what millennials want as this will inform their different behavior in the workplace. One way to start to understand millennials is to ask what problems are they facing that might be different from those faced by other generations? Here is where I can help. Those born during the 80s and 90s grew up in a time of great global uncertainty. This uncertainty came as the world shifted after the events of September 11th 2001. It grew in the throws of the 2007 recession. And each new (easily accessible via social media) report of the realities of climate change, global unrest, and continued domestic difficulties reinforce this uncertainty. Our obsession with technology constantly keeps us aware of the ways the world is failings to live up to what we were told to expect. One of the biggest gaps between expectations and reality is the current higher education system. While more and more people are going to and graduating from college, the cost of this education has increased dramatically. Consequently, more and more people are graduating with higher and higher levels of student loan debt. Worse, this is happening while the guarantees of return on investment of a Bachelor’s degree have plummeted. In order to ensure quality workers, many companies have increased the requirements for entry-level positions. This often requires that students participate in unpaid internships to gain experience something that is out of reach for many (especially lower income) students. All this means that many recent graduates are often underemployed in jobs that do not excite or challenge them, and still often struggle to pay their bills. All of this influences both millennial expectations and performance in the office.

Understanding millennials in this context will change the assumptions you make about their motivations and performance. For example, think of a recent grad who eagerly accepts an entry-level position at a salary that cannot sustain their student debt for very long. They will most likely not stick around for 5 or 6 years waiting for a promotion if something with higher pay comes along in two or three. This appears to older generations as “expecting too much too soon,” but it is also just a simple financial reality for many millennials.  Millennials are perceived as being less loyal and not good team players. This could simply be because they are narcissistic. But maybe instead, their perceived self-interest comes from the anxiety of growing up in a world where nothing is certain and anything can change. Their desire for rewards maybe doesn’t only come from misguided entitlement but from very real financial pressures. These new assumptions may or may not be true, but they will definitely be more effective in increasing empathy. Instead of resenting differences you will be more willing to work with millennials to implement solutions. As well, by knowing more about where millennials are coming from, your solutions will be more effective. In the Get What You Want paradigm, the top of the triangle represents a compromise everyone can accept. This might look a little different for every organization. The solutions will need to be tailored to both your, and your millennial employees, needs. But the possibility for progress and productivity is always there. Millennials may be anxious, or engaged by different issues, and some may actually be narcissistic (this is something I intend to address in future post) but we are definitely, despite everything, inventively optimistic. You might just be surprised with your results.