Managing Millennials Requires Empathy and Guidance

Entitled. That’s the first word audience members at Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference shouted out when Brad Karsh, CEO and founder of JBTraining Solutions, asked them characteristics of millennials.

“That took you about one-eighth of a second,” Karsh laughed. Other suggestions ranged from “whiney” and “distracted” to a few with positive connotations, such as “ambitious” and “tech-savvy.”

In his session, “Managing 20-Somethings,” Karsh, who has coached more than 25,000 millennials and 10,000 of their managers on multi-generational dynamics, sought to shed light on the roots of those definitions. Many of the words the SHRM audience associated with millennials, commonly defined as those born between 1981 and 1995, were echoed in quotes from a Time magazine story Karsh cited about 20-somethings in the workplace; however, unbeknownst to the audience, the story was actually published in 1990–and, thus, was actually describing conceptions at the time of Generation X.

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“Do you know what that means? You’re getting old,” Karsh said. “You forget what it’s like to be 22, 24 or 26 and starting your career.”

However, that reality check isn’t all that’s needed for successfully managing millennials–empathy is also key, Karsh said, which can start with recognizing that each generation currently in the workforce has been shaped by their upbringing. For instance, baby boomers were brought up in an era of stay-at-home moms, and the mantra that “good things come to those who work hard.”

By the next generation, the birth rate had dropped from 3.7 children per family to 1.8 and more two-parent families had both adults working outside of the house–paving the way for the “latchkey kid” concept and the mantra of “good things come to those who work figure it out.”

Over the next generation, the nation’s unprecedented economic growth–the Dow Jones grew by 15 times, Karsh said–and the easing of the many social tensions that had defined the 1970s gave rise to American kids being brought up in unparalleled comfort, with many parents seeing their kids’ self-esteem as one of their primary responsibilities.

Karsh joked that, after he landed his first job, his mom remarked, “I can’t believe they hired you.” When he speaks with a room full of millennials today, nearly everyone always agrees that one of the first comments from their parents about a new job is, “They’re lucky to have you.” That shift can affect workers’ perspectives about their role and shape what motivates them, he said.

Hand in hand with that idea, he added, is the proliferation of after-school activities, sports and clubs, which added constant structure and hierarchy to millennials’ lives as they grew up.

“Twenty-somethings look up and there has always been someone there: a coach, teacher, volunteer, instructor, parent. Someone told them exactly what to do,” Karsh said. “Now, they come to work and look up and see their boss and say, ‘Tell me exactly what to do.’ “

Many of the multi-generational tensions that are happening in today’s workplaces, Karsh said, stem from that misalignment between explanation and action. Millennials want to be told what to do, a concept that may seem foreign to Generation Xers, who were reared in that period of independence.

So, what’s the best strategy for managing millennials?

Providing clear, concrete explanations and expectations is a start, Karsh said, though make sure you’re realistic: If you hand out a job description to a new-hire millennial, make sure he or she is aware if that list isn’t comprehensive and may only account for 25 percent of the expectations.

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Keep focused on “weening them off structure,” but be cognizant that process can’t happen overnight, he added. Stay connected as well: In a recent survey Karsh cited, 60 percent of millennials expected to hear from their managers every day, and many of them operated under the idea that “no news is bad news” when it comes to feedback from supervisors.

Mastering managing millennials can ease workplace tension, Karsh said–and it’s especially important as another generation is about to enter the workforce: globals. Also known as Generation Z, this generation was born between 1996 and 2010 and is what Karsh described as “millennials on steroids.” They’re highly tech-savvy, have multicultural expectations (they actually expect diversity in settings like workplaces, not just an awareness of it) and are highly connected–often on a global scale.

“In my day, we looked up for information,” Karsh said, “and now, millennials and globals look out for information.”

While millennials and globals share many traits, he added, the latter group does tend to be more practical (nearly half of globals recently surveyed said they would bypass going to college if future employers armed them with certain skills), competitive and proactive.

To prepare for globals entering the workforce, HR should see a lack of diversity within their organizations as a red flag, create opportunities for horizontal job hopping, and beef up financial incentives and benefits. Companies may want to think hard about the trend of moving to open workspaces, Karsh cautioned, as research shows globals prefer private space at work.

Addressing younger employees’ needs head on is key, he added.

“It’s really smart to have frank convos with your 20-somethings.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected]