Managing millennials: The do's and don'ts

It seems as though everyone has a bone to pick with the millennial generation. Complaints about how members of that generation are high maintenance and demand special attention in the workplace never seem to go away. If we believe the anecdotal evidence, millennials expect a trophy just for showing up.

In the past decade, management guru and author Bruce Tulgan has endeavored to dispel some of the conventional wisdom about millennials. And according to him, there’s plenty of it. Millennials want work to be fun. They can only learn from computers. They snub grunt work. Not only that: Managers have long heeded bad advice on how to handle this generation, convinced that coddling is the way to win over millennials.

But instead of handling millennials with silk gloves, managers should take an approach that’s “less Google and more U.S. Army,” Tulgan says. In short: Leaders should be strong. To capitalize on the strengths of this generation, managers need to carefully manage expectations, never minimize the negatives of a job and always tell it like it is, said Tulgan, author of the book “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y.”

Chanelle Schneider, a digital content producer and founder of the GenYChat on Twitter, agrees. To get the best performance out of millennials, managers shouldn’t dote on their younger employees but instead build a reciprocal relationship that will ultimately produce long-term results, she said.

“Don't give praise when it isn't due,” she said. “Phony adulation will lead to doubt in your authenticity as a person and as a leader.”

Millennial employees do their best work in give-and-take relationships, she said, because they believe in supporting their managers, just as the managers support the employees. “It's a cycle of kindness that becomes the foundation for loyalty and retention as opposed to the vicious cycle where people compete solely to get ahead,” Schneider said.

Perhaps some much-needed relationship building could bring the generations closer. In a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, nearly 40 percent of millennials claimed that older managers don’t relate well to younger workers, and 34 percent said their personal drive intimidated members of other generations.

“If a senior manager is not relating to younger workers, it’s because they’re uninterested in them as people and see them solely as employees,” Schneider said. “That attitude has to change.”

To achieve a more harmonious coexistence, managers should spend some one-on-one time with their millennial employees, said Alexandra Levit, a workplace expert who counsels government organizations on intergenerational communication issues.

“Take each millennial employee to lunch or coffee, inquire about their dreams and aspirations, and show them you genuinely care about their ideas, career growth and success,” advised Levit, who wrote “MillennialTweet: 140 Bite-Sized Ideas for Managing the Millennials.”

Millennials “love the apprentice approach [so] allow them to work by your side during a crisis,” she added. “Delegate important tasks and then encourage them to report back to you regularly on progress.”

Keep the communication flowing

Managers should also teach millennials how to adapt to the workplace’s culture. Educate them about the ins and outs of your organization and why things are done a certain way. Make sure they understand what a good work ethic is, Levit said, and direct their enthusiasm and energy into projects that allow them to make a valuable contribution.

“Provide frequent and constructive feedback,” she said. “Don’t wait for performance evaluations to tell them how they’re doing. Don’t harp on the negative. Accentuate the positive, and focus on one issue at a time.”

But even more important for managers is to operate with an eye toward retaining talented employees. To keep millennials’ interest, Levit advises managers to recognize good work, whether they do it privately or publicly. High-performing millennials should also be considered for small bonuses or other non-monetary rewards, she said.

However, if you think there’s a star on your team, act fast. “Do whatever you can to keep her — even if it’s facilitating an internal move,” Levit said.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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