Managing millennials

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There’s endless talk about the new generation of young people entering the job market, generation Y or ‘millennials’. Statistically we know that they are the largest generation and the most educated we’ve ever seen. Other than that, opinions are divided on how different they really are from previous generations and what this means for employers.

From generation to generation however, one question remains top of mind for every ambitious career starter: How do I get ahead? And for their leaders and managers, the question of how best to utilise and develop their skills, so they do indeed get ahead, is forever a thorny one. Those managing millennials need to start by considering two distinct ways in which a generational gap may affect the working relationship: use of technology and understanding of reporting lines. These are well-researched areas of differentiation.

Tech-savvy, socially awkward: Without doubt, the single most obvious characteristic of today’s generation is their dependence on and skill with cellphone and internet technology. It gives them access to instant answers about everything. As a result, they’re impatient and dislike uncertainty and ambiguity. At work this translates into a need for access to people, quick turnarounds and respect for competence over experience. They have notoriously short attention spans so projects with deadlines and daily or weekly goals will motivate them to complete the task immediately at hand.


A downside of growing up with such a reliance on technology is that it makes many millennials socially awkward. They are more at ease using shorthand with their thumbs to access the virtual world than they are in an interview, a meeting or in one-on-one conversation. Few have developed the art of conversation or effective writing skills. They like to collaborate, but do not have the necessary social skills to do this successfully.

Traditionally induction and basic training for young people has focused on imparting technical knowledge. In future it will have to include the skills of communication, negotiation and relationship building; ‘soft skills’ traditionally included in management development, if at all.

Forget hierarchies: The second major consideration when dealing with the new generation in the workforce is that they don’t want to report to anyone – at least not in the way we think of a ‘reporting to’ relationship. They question traditional hierarchies and can disregard formal authority and titles. If they are unable to find the answer to a problem from a colleague or an immediate manager, they are quite likely to walk into the CEO’s office to find it.

Communication therefore generally runs more smoothly if it is casual and everyone acts as if they are of similar ranking. If you expect to be treated differently because you are older or of a higher rank, think again.

What they’re looking for: Millennials need to know that you want their feedback and you value their opinions, so ask lots of probing questions… and listen carefully to the answers. You can shut down the stream of ideas forever with just one: “No, no, that won’t work. When we…” Young people don’t want to hear monologues about your experience. They bring a lot to the table and are at their best working things out for themselves.

They no longer value the traditional middle manager who simply keeps track of what they do. That can be done on their own, by peers or a machine. What they do value is mentoring and coaching from someone they respect.

So offer clear concise instruction, regular praise and appropriate freedom to make decisions. Most importantly, hold them to account for the consequences of their actions. Sometimes a bit of tough love is necessary if they are to learn from their mistakes, and learn respect for you. Finally, reward them for work done well.

In many ways, managing today’s generation isn’t much different from what managing ought to have been across previous generations. Put your stereotypes aside, engage with people as individuals, learn what motivates them and help them develop their unique talents.

The current work environment is very tough. Young people need all the help they can get to get ahead and will be less tolerant of what they consider to be poor leadership. The bar is high for them and they’ll make it higher for you too.

Author bio: Maureen Collins founded Straight Talk in 2005 to work with individuals and organisations that are serious about changing their behaviour. Contact her on or visit:


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