Managing millennials

Jul 06 2009 by Peter Vajda Print This Article

When you Google "managing millennials", you'll receive about 36,000 results. "Millennials and work," brings back 158,000. There's no question that managing, and working with, millennials – or Generation Y - is a hot topic. And a general review of much of the discussion around millennials can lead you to believe that they are (a) a pain in the neck; (b) need extreme coddling; (c) resented and mistrusted; (d) a special interest group; or (e) just plain subversive.

In my experience working with millennials (and adults who think like millennials), I've never come to any of these conclusions. Why? Because I never managed a millennial as a millennial. I managed them as I did every other employee.

That means I treated them as a citizen of an organization who would be a great fit as long as they had a clear vision of the organization's goals and an understanding of how their own attitudes, behavior and performance support these goals. Anyone - whatever their age –responds well to expectations that are fairly set. Generational stuff never comes into it.

Whenever I'm managing a team, the first day is always set aside for discussing expectations (and by first day I mean mine, if I were coming in as a new manager or theirs, if they had just joined the team).

By expectations I mean mine, theirs and the organization's. What values we espouse. What healthy and unhealthy teamwork looks like. What interfacing with clients looks like. What healthy and unhealthy competition looks like. What effective and ineffective performance looks

Like and what open and honest communication and disagreement looks like.

Along the way, those whose performance indicated they need support in these areas are going to get it (I'm also a certified coach). The bottom line, explicit and clear, was: meet expectations and be a good citizen and you'll be fine. Otherwise, there were consequences.

The last thing I say at every meeting of this type is simple. "Life is choices. So, it's up to you to choose if you want to be here and how you want to be here. There are benefits from choosing wisely; there are consequences from choosing not wisely."

It's much the same when teaching a new undergraduate class. Day one is always about expectations. And one thing I made very clear up front is that if they took the final exam on day one, they would most likely fail.

So, "everybody is starting this class with an "F" and it's your responsibility to work your way up to the grade you want." There are no entitlements or getting an A because you walk and talk and have blood in your veins.

Every class I taught centered around peer-mediated interaction in small groups. A third of the grades awarded was connected to how well individuals supported their group to achieve the group's goals. If one of the group members choose (remember the "life is choices" piece) not to do their piece of the work, their other group members' grades would suffer.

On the other hand, group members who were doing their work would be expected to make their best attempt to motivate their colleague to seek to improve, to not simply complain about their colleague or ostracize him or her.

So from day one, everybody knows what is expected of them. Everyone can choose to engage or not, knowing full well the consequences of their choice.

In both the classroom and the workplace, individuals dress how they want within reason. In the workplace, they can listen to their music, etc. within reason. But the bottom line is that they need to be good citizens of the organization and operate within its guidelines - enjoy flexibility within its structure - if they want to be successful. Sure, not everyone chooses to do this. But life is choices.

So set expectations and trust that folks will adhere to the commitments they make. Then stand back and observe, coaching and supporting when and where required. Do this and age issues vanish because the real issues are those of character, values and expectations.

When I manage always try to use the word "choice." In fact I suggest that we throw out the word "goal" altogether and instead ask each employee to craft the "choices" (how to do, be and have) they feel would make them good citizens of the organization. Why? Because "choice" is more personal and empowering, fostering responsibility and accountability.

I also ask each employee to state their commitment to honoring the choices they make and indicate, specifically in an operational way, what this commitment looks like in terms of thought (how they will think about what they say they're going to do), public voice (what they actually say to customers and clients and why) and action (what they actually do).

But to make this work, you need to ensure that these choices and commitments are measurable and observable, are related to their team's or organization's values, mission and vision and exhibit an alignment between what an employee thinks, says and does.

Making this link between what an employee thinks, says and does and the organization's expectations, vision, goals and values is one of the fundamentals of good management. Make this link for all your employees – of whatever age – and you'll find that those "managing millennials" problems become things of the past.

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.