Managing Millennials? First, Set Aside Your Assumptions

Many people buy in to the myth that the millennial generation is entitled, demanding, and unprepared to deliver on real workforce challenges.

Some fellow childhood classmates and I reunited recently to catch up on our lives. As we were discussing our careers, one of my friends, who is a nurse leader, asked me for some advice on coaching “all these millennial nurses.” She went on to say that too many young nurses seem to arrive in the workforce entitled, citing demands for flexible hours and free lunch amongst several other office perks. My other nurse friend joined in, citing her own entry into nursing as a contrast: It was a heroic journey that started with a true calling and commitment at a young age.

I had a good laugh with my friends at how often we rewrite history in our favor and at the real conversation we had at our school career day in the 80s: They divided us by gender and the school counselor highlighted “female” career choices such as nurses, teachers, stay-at-home-moms, or secretaries.  One of my friends chose hers by elimination. “I don’t like kids so I’m going to be a nurse” (as the universe would have it, she is now a pediatric nurse). My other friend chose nursing that day, too, because they agreed they’d go to college together and get matching dorm room comforters. This reality was quite different than the story they were telling me now.

Like my dear friends, many of us buy in to the myth that the millennial generation is entitled, demanding, and unprepared to deliver on real workforce challenges. In reality, millennials do not live up to this description—that is just a generalized story. Millennials make up 35% of the workforce, so it’s a critical business issue that we stop judging and start leading this group that makes up over one-third of our teams. When we get caught up in our generational stories, even seasoned leaders forget that many of us were not committed to our roles or careers when we entered the workforce. Like my childhood friends and I, we stumbled in but became committed because a great leader called us to step up to a moment of greatness in the face of a challenge.

Here are three ways multi-generational leaders can call their teams up to foster accountability and deliver amazing results:

Stop judging, start helping

What if millennials aren’t the problem in our workforce today? When we blame or label millennials, it’s a story we make up that justifies why we haven’t adjusted our leadership style to lead this group effectively. Every one of us came to the workforce under-coached and over-rewarded, but when I can make up a story that you are uncoachable, I use that as a reason to step down as a leader.

A better placement of energy is to get curious about different approaches and ask, “What can I do to help understand their approach? Where can I grow more skillful in new approaches?”

Keep ready for what’s next

At this point in time, three generations co-exist in the workplace, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. Get clear on what your generation brings to the table and what you need to learn from the other two. The newest generations in the workplace often expose our lack of readiness for what’s next. Today, millennials are the group who currently point out places where we aren’t ready in technology or need more efficient ways of doing things. Instead of believing that we need to slow change down or coddle old preferences, ask instead, “How can I set aside my preferences and focus on future potential to keep the business ready for what’s next?”

Realize that accountability isn’t dependent on circumstances

Sometimes we buy in to the myth that millennials are entitled or demanding because they were dealt tough economic times coupled with the explosion of on-demand technologies. While it’s true that each generation can be influenced by broader circumstances, we can shift our focus to the good news—the reality that accountability isn’t shaped by times or things. Accountability is developed through frequent challenges (in other words, calling them up to greatness), evaluation of performance against the challenge and questions for self-reflection that toggle someone up and out of ego. Great questions we can ask any generation to foster self-reflection and cultivate accountability include:

  • What could you change in your approach to be successful?
  • What do you know for sure?
  • What can you do to help?
  • If you could be great right now in this project or situation, what would great look like?

Leaders, no matter the generation you are surrounded by at work, stop believing they can’t be led, reach out and call them up to greatness. Let’s welcome all perspectives and leverage the expertise they bring.

Cy Wakeman is a drama researcher and the author of No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement and Deliver Big Results.