On Managing Millennials

Plucky Managing MillenialsDear Plucky,

There are a variety of junior employees on my team. It’s been a joy to mentor them, but I’ve noticed that they interpret feedback in a very different way than I do. A small dose of constructive feedback can lead to a tailspin of anxiety, negative self-talk or even tears. Often, these conversations require a follow up to refocus the situation and move forward which can be draining for both parties.

On the flip side of this, this team really exhibits a need for constant vocal, positive reinforcement. One high five can lead to a massive uptick in productivity, but the absence of this regular feedback can sometimes lead to assumptions that the unspoken feedback is very negative.

How can I keep my junior team focused on their development and provide them with the skills to rely less on the feedback of others? I don’t have any participation ribbons left!

Millennial Manager

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Hey MM,

First of all, what a thoughtfully-worded note. “I’ve noticed that they interpret feedback in a very different way than I do” is a generous way of saying what the rest of the world has been muttering under their breath for the past few years. (… aka, “MILLENNIALS, AM I RIGHT???”)

When I read your note, I hear a soft alarm ringing underneath nearly every sentence, a gentle alert that reminds me about the problem of confidence.

I know the world is handling many other tragic epidemics these days, but from my corner of the planet, I see lack of confidence as the most pervasive one out there. And since I’m using a word that is thrown around in weird ways these days, I’ll define what I mean by it:

Confidence means that you feel at peace with the direction you’re going because you know that THE ONLY LIFE YOU’RE LIVING IS THE ONE YOU GOT. No matter what’s going on around you (insults? trolls? idiotic senior leadership, illnesses, political turmoil or just a grey morning), confidence is the absurdly rare ability to say “I know who I am and I act accordingly.”

(Btw, confidence does not mean that you think you’re better than other people or that you always have the right answers or that you deserve a $10k raise, pronto.)

So, back to your question. When you describe the juniors on your team, what I hear underneath it is a whole bucket of folks who do not yet know who they are.

Likely, these folks grew up in a generation that had access to participation ribbons and loads of positive encouragement from their parents and teachers. But the world they were dumped into after graduation was one that suffers from a real lack of community. They’re building relationships online (both personal and professional), they’re moving away from their families at young ages… instead of the slow build of identity formed in communities, they are left to figure out who they are based on Facebook likes and retweets.

I’m not complaining about this new world; that seems like clickbait and a total waste of time. But I point it out because it’s the math behind how this generation operates. Work represents much more than a paycheck and the opportunity to churn things out; work may be the deepest place of community they have.

Because of this, it makes total sense that their identity stuff is showing up at work, that they are trying to define themselves according to the people they sit next to, the coworkers who got high fives and those who didn’t, the fear that a piece of growing feedback will lead them straight out of a job.

That fear is great because they wouldn’t just be losing a job. They’d be losing their community.

As their manager, here’s what I’d do: I would instantly shift my language to be very focused on the individual. In a 1:1, I’d ask about what she was proudest of lately, what she wants help with. I’d compliment the way she reacted to a client and I’d ask how she would fix Uber if she could. I would reiterate concepts like growth and development, I’d tell an anecdote about how I screwed something up last week and ask if she ever did something similar.

In short, I would demonstrate that this human is so interesting and has so much possibility that we could spend the whole 1:1 without mentioning coworkers or the company at all.

Side note: they won’t all make it. Some of your juniors have such a long way to go in growing their confidence that they will need another 10 years of hopping around jobs to find themselves. This is not your problem to solve. You cannot control the pace of someone else’s emotional growth.

What is your problem is finding the ones who will make it and helping to build the foundations of their identity and self-confidence. Achieving lofty company missions are possible, but they are more possible when you’ve got a bunch of confident individuals on-hand.

How lucky your juniors are to have you for a manager! And how interesting to consider your own career path moment in all of this, your opportunity to be a springboard for a team of confident, capable humans, willing and ready to report for duty.

Thanks for writing. Hope this helps.
xo Jen

Are you a manager? Do you manage millennials? We’ll talk about the nuts & bolts of managing, plus the bigger conversation about empowering humans at Plucky’s manager training in San Francisco this October! I’d love to see you there.