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.
“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.