As part of our continuing series on generational issues in the workplace, my last post discussed Five Things Millennials Need to Know When Being Interviewed by a Baby Boomer.
Co-written with generational expert, Brad Szollose, today’s post explores and dispels some of the common – and counter-productive – myths that Baby Boomers and Generation Xers often have about Millennials.
Myth #1: Millennials are entitled, and have a bit of an attitude
One of the most common complaints Baby Boomer bosses have about Millennials is that they have a sense of entitlement, resulting in some part from a co-dependency with their “helicopter parents.” There are tons of (humorous, and even ludicrous) stories floating around online regarding Millennials bringing their parents along on job interviews, or having mom contact HR to negotiate a better benefits package. Boomers, can you imagine your parents coming to your office in your mid-twenties and making a scene like that?
And the frustration is not just between Boomers and Millennials, it’s between Millennials and Generation X as well. Gen Xers, the often-overlooked generation which shares characteristics of both Boomers and Millennials (though tend to be more similar to Boomers), showed up on time, wore a suit, and waited 5 years before asking for a raise, only to now see Boomers tripping over them in a race to shake hands with these upstart Millennials!
So who raised Millennials to be the way they are? Baby Boomers! You’ve raised your kids to be confident adults who know how amazing they are. You’ve encouraged them to express their feelings, to follow their passion, and to speak up and speak out – even with those more senior to them. If they don’t like the grade they received on a midterm, they’ve been encouraged to question their teachers. And now they have entered the world of work, and Baby Boomers are mystified by Millennial behavior?
Time to face facts: Millennials have been raised with a new set of rules (some might say “no rules”), without traditional boundaries, resulting in a generation of young adults who are extremely independent in their thinking, and have little interest in honoring the past or preserving the “respect your elders” meme that we grew up on. (Did we even know what a “meme” was back then?). In most cases, Millennials may not realize they are breaking any rules at all.
So we may complain about this generation’s sense of entitlement and expressions of empowerment, but if you think about it, isn’t that exactly what we would have wanted when we were their age: Respect for our work from our elders, and the freedom to tell them what we’re really thinking? In essence, because of how they were raised and trained, in many ways Millennials are doing the things and acting in ways we wished we could!
In his book, “Drive,” Dan Pink talks about how people are primarily motivated by three key things: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. And while Boomers and Gen Xers want these things, Millennials demand and expect all three.
So the next time a Millennial asks a question in the middle of your presentation or interrupts you during an interview, rather than seeing it as an act of insubordination or disrespect, consider that you may be judging things from a Boomer perspective. Instead, see these acts as engagement, curiosity, self-expression, and a desire to make a contribution. When typing on a phone, tablet or laptop while you’re talking, they’re (probably) not ignoring you – they’re multi-tasking: taking notes, Googling information, and texting or tweeting you a response to the question you just asked. All in 60 seconds. Rather than being unfocused and disrespectful, they’re doing the opposite by being proactive and productive in the most effective way they know how.
So if you’re willing to alter your mindset and expectations regarding “the rules” and what constitutes appropriate behavior, you may find that different is not bad…it’s just different. And maybe, in some ways, even better. So why not take that difference and leverage it to your advantage… because many of your customers are probably Millennials who think and act – and prefer to communicate and interact – in that very same way.
Myth #2: Millennials have no clue what hard work looks like, and are unwilling to pay their dues
Unlike Boomers who were educated in a factory-like school system to prepare them for either office or manufacturing jobs in the industrial complex, Millennials have been raised and educated to be independent, entrepreneurial, information-age thinkers, devoid of hierarchy and traditional industrial-age rules. That doesn’t mean they all want to go out and start their own company, but it does mean that without any sense of protocol or “chain of command,” these Digital Natives are more likely than we were to just go ahead and take action without checking with anybody. And if you’ve ever managed a team of strong-willed, highly-independent thinkers, you’ve probably found it to be like herding cats.
What happens in childhood, prepares us for adulthood. Though Boomers grew up with lots of rules and restrictions, we were independent in our own way: riding our bikes all the way to school, maybe working a part-time job afterwards, and often coming home for dinner after sundown. We grew up in a world where it was perfectly fine to disappear all day long without needing to let anyone know where we were going or having to check in to confirm that we were ok. It was just assumed that we were.
Millennials, on the other hand, grew up in a very different and more complex world of helicopter parents, cell phones, and continuous connectivity. They had coordinated and supervised “play dates,” were driven to soccer practice and dance lessons, and Mom and Dad micromanaged everything like personal assistants to their wunderkinds. This created a shift in the role of parenting; from authority figure to friend and adviser…and chauffeur. In brief, parents became peers to Millennials.
On top of shifting parenting roles, Millennials grew up looking at multiple screens and doing multiple things at the same time. They learned to work in bursts. To work smarter, not harder. To binge in order to meet deadlines. And to not strive for perfection, but for happiness. In the way that we crammed for midterms and finals while in college, Millennials have been doing things this way their entire life…and continue this way of being at work. It’s gotten them this far. And, regardless, they don’t know any other way.
But here’s the big surprise: Contrary to what many Boomers or Gen Xers might think, Millennials ARE willing to work hard. It’s just that they hate inefficiency, and they have no tolerance for waste, bureaucracy, or outdated processes or technologies. So it’s not that they’re unwilling to work; they’re unwilling to do busy-work, or the mindless, monotonous tasks that so many jobs (especially entry level jobs) entail.
General Patton once said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what needs to get done, and they’ll surprise you with their ingenuity.” This is a great mantra to keep in mind when hiring Millennials. What we may consider the best way of doing something may not necessarily be the best way for them. If we want an engaged and empowered workforce, the best way to manage and lead a Millennial may simply be to get out of their way, and let them spread their wings and fly.
Myth #3: Millennials are too casual and informal
As we pointed out in our previous post, Millennials have been raised and taught by parents, teachers, and coaches who encouraged them to speak up, speak out, and treat the authority figures in their lives as mentors or even equals. This has flattened the hierarchy in their minds. And, in many ways, this is a good thing. As a Boomer who, earlier in his career, once got disciplined for “leapfrogging the chain of command” by talking to his boss’s boss without his boss’s permission, Todd experienced first-hand the wrath of overstepping his bounds and was severely chastised for his faux pas. Millennials don’t have these boundaries and find them absurd. To most Millennials, there’s nothing wrong with popping your head into the CEO’s office just to chat…or even friending him or her on Facebook. And why not? They’re just people. What’s the big deal?
So, as a Boomer or Gen Xer, we may sometimes think to ourselves, “These Millennials have no respect for authority, title, or position.” But even though this is how WE were brought up, if we put our egos aside maybe there’s actually nothing wrong with this mindset. Do we really need (or want) to be called, Mr. So-and-so (the way we were brought up to address our superiors) rather than just being called by our first name? Millennials were raised to be friends with adults, and to speak up and say whatever is on their mind regardless of status. Perhaps we should stop fighting it and just accept this as the new reality. As discussed in Liquid Leadership, top companies like Cisco and FedEx have intentionally flattened their hierarchies and modified their processes and technologies in order to improve communication, remove bottlenecks, and speed up decision-making – and perhaps we need to rethink how we do things as well.
So if a Millennial pops into your office to say hi – putting aside all the hierarchal assumptions of the past – maybe instead of being offended we might see it as an opportunity to learn. And if your Millennial assistant “friends” you on Facebook, don’t be appalled by the brazenness. You don’t have to accept the invite if you don’t want to. In fact, you might just take as a compliment that a hip, young Millennial even wants to be your “friend”!
Myth #4: Millennials need to be told how awesome they are all the time
In his 1969 treatise, “Freedom to Learn,” psychologist Carl Rogers suggested that schools should become self-esteem-boosting personal-growth centers where children were encouraged to be spontaneous and free. Instead of competition, it was all about collaboration. And moral judgments like right and wrong were to be abandoned. The result: Gen Y Millennials are the byproduct of this type of schooling and parenting. And this is the root of the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality that everyone talks about.
But what’s the impact of this upbringing when those raised with these values and expectations enter the workplace? One outcome is organizations desperately over-doing it to try to keep their Millennial workers happy. One of the hottest business buzzwords of the past few years is “employee engagement.” It’s not enough that people be paid to do a job as Boomers and Gen X were; we must now worry about how to keep everyone engaged as well.
That’s not a bad thing: It’s obvious that if people are engaged they are more likely to do their work with commitment and a positive attitude, to be happier and more productive, and to be more loyal to their job and to their company. Like anyone else, Millennials simply want appreciation and recognition for a job well done. And they are willing to work for it. But unlike Baby Boomers or Gen X, they will not sit silently at a desk for 10 years, giving up vacations, and awaiting that promotion that may or may not come. Especially after seeing their parents do just that, only to get unceremoniously laid off. Nowadays if you stay at a company for 15-20 years, rather than seeing you as dedicated and loyal, headhunters, HR recruiters, and hiring managers are more likely to see you as lacking in ambition or the flexibility to take risks, adapt to change, and to grow. Todd points out how due to the number of jobs he had earlier in his career he used to be negatively labeled a “job-hopper”; now people look at his resume and say, “Wow, it’s amazing how many different things you’ve done!”
The bottom line is that Millennials don’t need to receive pats on the back every single day, or to be constantly presented with awards and trophies. They do, however, want regular feedback and need to know how they are doing. And they want to feel like they are continuously – and rapidly (though somewhat impatiently) – moving forward.
Myth #5: Millennials don’t take work seriously
As mentioned previously, Millennials not only want work that matters, but demand and expect it. Like all employees, they are motivated by Autonomy (the ability to do their jobs in a way that works best for them); Mastery (to be continuously learning and growing); and Purpose (doing work that matters and feeling that they are making a contribution). So Millennials do take work seriously, if it is work they enjoy and that makes them feel productive and fulfilled.
While Boomers and Gen X were taught to look busy or get fired…and spent a lot of time watching the clock, Millennials want to work only when they need to work, and to not have to pretend to be working when they are not. The management guru Frederick W. Taylor said that “People do best, what they like best to do”…and, while true of all people, this is especially true of Millennials.
But, you may be thinking, what about entry level jobs? People need to start somewhere. And aren’t there times that you need to take a job just to pay the bills while you’re building a career or discovering your calling? And aren’t there tasks in any job – the less exciting and glamorous chores like making copies, filing, data entry, etc. – that SOMEONE has to do? The answer is yes, and these jobs typically fall to the lowest person on the totem pole…which, in many cases these days, is a Millennial. The generational difference is that when Boomers and Gen Xers were first starting out, they accepted that starting at the bottom came with the territory. It wasn’t demeaning to take a job in the mailroom; it was a proud and much-appreciated way to get a foot in the door. But Millennials, due to how they were raised, often struggle with accepting this concept.
The reality is that every task is a learning experience, and Boomers and Gen X bosses may need to put on their leadership hat and demonstrate to Millennials that every new opportunity is a chance to learn, to grow, to build your network, and to show what you can do. And in the world of gamification that Millennials grew up in, if you can present work (even menial tasks) as a stimulating challenge, find a way to keep score, and recognize success, that is one way to engage Millennials in the process.
The bottom line is that times have changed, and if Millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers can find a mutually-beneficial way of working together to create a win-win-win scenario, organizations will get the best and the most out of all their people, regardless of generation, and create a happier, more productive work culture and environment for all.
We hope you found these myth-busting tips to be valuable. Again, as mentioned in our first post, this is coming from the perspective of two Boomers; if you have other thoughts or something to add, please just let us know!
Next post we’ll turn the tables and talk about the following increasingly common scenario: What happens when the “natural order of things” is flipped on its head and it’s the Millennial who is in the position of power?