A baby boomer's guide to managing millennials at work

Millennials are defined as those born between 1980 and 2000, that is, those reaching young adulthood around the year 2000. They are considered one of the most educated generations of our times. Their numbers are huge, surpassing those of the baby boomers.

Their integration into the world of work has been far from smooth. Their attitudes and behaviors appear to be uniquely different from those of earlier generations, creating a kind of seismic cultural shock on many levels. As millennials merge into the workforce, the work habits of baby boomers are coming across now as outdated and ineffective.

For boomers, patience is a virtue, while for millennials, faster is better. Millennials have an insatiable appetite to learn, grow and move up professionally. For boomers, a digital diet is a healthy practice, while for millennials, a lack of connectivity makes them feel isolated and vulnerable.

Boomers derive joy from quiet reflection, millennials from constant stimulation. Boomers put in the time, work hard and then reward themselves with leisure activities outside of work. Millennials, on the other hand, seek an integration of work and life.

For boomers, performance feedback is a formal process tied to promotion and compensations, conducted at specific times. For millennials, feedback is informal and is expected throughout the day. For boomers, it is important to follow the chain of command. Millennials give preference to relationships at any level and expect ready access to those in positions of influence. 

Millennials and boomers find themselves in new territory regarding how to deal with each other. It is imperative for boomer managers to ensure the proper integration of the millennials into their organizational culture. Based on my daily interaction with millennials in corporations and academia, I've learned the following:

1. Let them get to know you. Just because millennials are constantly using technology does not mean that they do not value human connectedness. Make sure they understand your vision and what inspires you.

2. Share the purpose of a project, not just the task. If you share with them the reason that something must be done, they will surprise you with the how to achieve it. They are purpose-oriented, not task-oriented. They reason that job security will derive from their competencies and their passions, not from where they fit in the organization. If they lack a connection with the purpose, they will move on.

3. Let them know how they are doing before they ask you. They thrive on feedback and expect routine encouragement. The absence of feedback could be interpreted to mean that you do not value them.

4. Practice empathy. If you try to see the world through their eyes and thus understand their needs, you will learn how to motivate them.  Engage them with stimulating activities, disrupt the routines, and surprise them with new challenges and special time-bound projects.

5. Give them space. Do not micromanage their methods. Give them space to learn, discover and experiment. Millennials like a challenge and the chance to create innovative solutions. They like to learn through immersion, engagement, trial and error, and entrepreneurial activities. 

6. Nurture their sense of belonging. In seeking jobs, they are looking for a context that allows them to align their values with the values of the organization. They wish to be connected to a purpose that matters to them and the community. In job interviews, you should articulate the organization's vision and share it with them. It is the impact of what the organization does that gives them a sense that they might belong.

7. Let them have access to technology. Millennials function in networked environments where simultaneous communications are more efficient than long meetings. Who needs a meeting when they can group-text? They see technology as essential and as a means for self-expression and learning. This constant stimulation keeps them energized and feeds their natural enthusiasm for collaborative settings.

Perhaps the labels of "boomers" and "millennials" are irrelevant, simply signifying differences related to the particular life stage in which each generation finds itself. These glaring differences may become diffused over time, but, between now and then, employers who tap into the unique strengths that this new generation offers will have a competitive edge by tapping into what a multigenerational workforce can deliver.

Suarez is professor of practice in systems thinking and design and a fellow of the Center for Leadership Innovation and Change at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. He contributes to the Washington Post’s Career Coach column.

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