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How do you solve a problem like millennials?

Brainy child

There has been quite a lot written about millennials lately, and their expectations about work and leadership. What a lot of this is saying is that they are somehow special, and therefore problematic, compared to their older, baby-booming colleagues.

In this article, =mc Director Yvette Gyles reviews what has been said on the topic, dispels some assumptions and looks at what this might mean for leaders across the ethically-driven sector.

Are millennials ‘a problem’?

As a trainer, I meet lots and lots of people every single day. On our courses, groups are diverse in many ways. I meet and work with plenty of millennials, and baby-boomers. So, I’m a millennial, I train millennials, and I train and coach their managers (who may or may not be millennials themselves). But what does this odd label mean?

To answer this the first thing is to establish who these people are. How old do you have to be to be a millennial? Is it likely that you grew up listening to A-ha and Wham, the Spice Girls and Oasis, or Beyonce and the Killers? The answer, it would seem, is any of the above. From the White House to the CIPD, many define this group as people born between 1980 and 2005. That’s a large group of people – and more and more of them are entering the labour market every year. And a fair few of them were born well before the new millennium.

Second, what do they want that is so difficult? Typically, we are told that this workforce wants a different kind of work. They want a career that is all about creativity, using technology, independence and job-hopping. However, given that such a broad range of people are included, is it really as simple as that? Henrik Bresman (2015) tells us to be very careful about lumping everyone into an Anglo-American/Western philosophy. He has shown that career – and life – expectations across the world among people born in this period are actually very different. In Central & Eastern Europe millennials want technical expertise from their manager, in Africa they want empowerment, and in Latin America they want him or her to being a role model.

Bresmnan, H (2015) What millennials Want from Work, Chartered Across the World, Havard Business Review, 23 February 2015

So, not a homogeneous, sheep-like group that all think the same thing after all. And to be fair, do all baby boomers expect the same things from life and work? Probably not.

Third then – what is the problem? People are not problems, but they do create them. So, for people under the age of 35, what is the problem that needs solving? A lot of it seems to come down to expectations – and how realistic these expectations are. For this generation, it would seem they have been told they can have the world and yet the world isn’t delivering. Wait But Why’s Tim Urban (2013) presents this very neatly, by explaining that “Happiness = Reality minus Expectations”. Urban explains that for managers to understand millennial expectations, you need to go back in time a bit: baby boomers were raised to expect hard times, and that working hard would reap good rewards. In fact, they got good times (expectations exceeded). The next generation were simply told they would get good rewards if they worked hard (i.e. no mention of hard times) – and in addition to that that each and every one of them was special, unique and had bags of potential. And then got the bad times (expectations not being met). Therefore, millennials are set up to be disappointed – and unhappy.

For managers of millennials, the problem, it would seem, is to find ways to let them down gently.

How do you disappoint millennials (gently)?

There are five things that we are told millennials are expecting from work: they want flexible working in order to do other things they enjoy outside of work, they like technology, they don’t like authority, they want lots of feedback, and they don’t like to wear suits (for example, see CIPD: 2014, Time: 2012).

However, as we saw earlier, not everyone wants the same thing – which means managers need to have a flexible approach. Here is some guidance on myth versus reality, and how to disappoint people in their expectations – and do it gently.

1. Let me do my own thing!

The theory goes like this: millennials like to do lots of different things, and want the flexibility to work hard and play hard. Leaders need to offer flexible working in order to attract the best talent.

Of course, having a life outside of work is nothing new. Baby boomers made babies after all. BUT not all of them did. And some millennials love to work all hours. And some want to set up on their own and go freelance.

A recent (young-ish) participant on a training course told me she didn’t understand work-life balance, as she valued her work more than being at home and would resent any attempt to reduce her hours. She defined herself by her work, and was proud of her achievements. Instead, she wanted clear guidance on what was expected from her in terms of results, and the option to change her hours as needed to achieve this. Often this means long hours, which she is fine with. And sometimes she just wants a sofa day, which her boss is fine with.

So it is important to think about how much flexibility you can offer to staff, and clearly communicate the ‘deal’ to them. If there are times when you can’t give flexibility that’s OK – but set objectives, be realistic about goals, and allow downtime when you can.

2. Give me all the tech! Don’t talk to me!

Apparently millennials are obsessed with technology. They grew up with GameBoys and Wiis – and have faster thumbs than previous generations. They therefore want and demand the best technology that will enable them to do their work quickly, smartly, and in a way that is constantly connecting with others.

That said, I’m quite happy delivering training with post-its, flip charts and a set of coloured pens (being a millennial), whereas my baby-booming boss is sat next to me on his Macbook, listening to a band I’ve never heard off, tweeting, emailing and googling all at once.

One of most important things you can do as a leader is enable staff to do their work. Give them the tools they need, and be open to new ideas. Learn from others about how new technologies can support your important work. But don’t waste precious funding on toys and gadgets that don’t have a purpose. Be clear about what you can offer, the expectation you have for equipment to be looked after and the amount of time that is spent on social media. Ensure staff have twitter accounts and know how to use them, but also be clear on what the purpose of this is (and if necessary encourage them to have separate identities for work and home).

And of course, be a role model. If you want more conversations than tweets, check in and have chats. If you want to understand what is happening with your staff, have more one-to-ones and don’t rely on email.

3. Don’t tell me what to do / manage me / control me!

According to some, this large group of people has no respect for authority and don’t want to be managed. They have grown up being taught to question assumptions and challenge statements, rather than learning by rote and doing as the boss says.

This may well be true, however as leader how do you have authority when it’s constantly being questioned? We advise listening to those questions. What are they telling you? Instead of replying with “Because I told you to,” try to be more reflective. If you can’t explain the “why” to someone maybe you don’t understand it well enough yourself. As Covey says, the best way to build successful relationships at work is to Seek to Understand.

That said, you may need to manage expectations about how decisions are made and by whom. At =mc we call this contracting. As a leader, it is your responsibility to set the direction – albeit by factoring in what others are telling you too. There are some things then that you can delegate and leave up to others, but there are some things that rest with you. Clearly explain your position, ensuring boundaries and responsibilities are well understood. This will feel less like controlling management, and more like leadership.

4. Give me feedback and get me promoted!

In relation to the above, we are also told that millennials want lots and lots of feedback and support. This means talking about them, not checking everything they do. They want leaders that are interested in their development, and aspirations – not sticking their nose in to the to-do list.

When thinking about this, I was struck by a conversation from another participant, in which they described their manager as the best boss they’d ever had. When I asked what made them so, they told me that their boss does two key things. One: they check in regularly on the business as usual list, asking how things are going and if there are any activities that need support. This is light touch and transactional in nature. Two: the manager also makes time for more in depth conversations about learning, development, career goals – and takes time to talk about the personal stuff. The participant told me that from this approach it was clear to them that they were unlikely to get promoted in the organisation (due to structure rather than performance), and they were OK with this as they knew what the job offered in terms of a steppingstone to their next position. As a result they were totally committed to the job.

As a manager then, there is a careful balance to be achieved. People – not just millennials – do like a lot of feedback – if it is meaningful and purposeful. They want guidance and support on the day-to-day things. But they also want broader support in terms of career management and progression. This may mean you need to remind them of what the current role offers in terms of opportunity – not promotion.

5. Let me wear jeans and cons!

And finally, apparently everyone under 35 likes to wear jeans and Converse trainers. This is symbolic of a more casual approach to work – where individual expression is OK and it’s not about how you look but what you present.

Let’s face it, what counts as acceptable professional clothing changes with every generation, not just millennials. Baby boomers certainly didn’t go around in corsets and top hats.

But what is it that people are really expecting from work? I think this is much less about denim and much more about values of transparency and honesty. People want to better understand what values an organisation stands for and what this means for working there. They also want to work where they can be themselves. It is what an organisation thinks is professionalism and the standards that it values that is important here – and a large factor in choosing where to work.

Rather than worrying about the dress code, leaders need to focus on the values the organisation stands for and how this is portrayed. If you need people to be suited and booted, explain why and what impact it has. If your donors and funders are put off by certain appearances, make that clear.

So, how do you solve a problem like millennials?

The answer is of course not to try – or indeed to think of them as a problem.

As a leader, you may find you need to explain things more, and not assume that the rules you have always worked to are clear to everyone. Listen and be curious, and don’t be afraid to assert your decisions.

As with all sound leadership advice, the trick is to treat each person you manage differently, recognising both their responsibilities and their expectations – and then manage them accordingly. And always be clear on what you can do to help people, and what you can’t – linking this back to the vision and mission of your organisation.

If you want more ideas on myths in leadership, see this article: 3 Myths of Talent Management.

And if you want more ideas on how to flex your leadership approach, have a look at our Leadership Skills for Managers programme. Find out more about our approach to flexible leadership in this free download: Leadership – finding your style

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in personal effectiveness, change and innovation, and leadership development. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as...

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