Coaching Millennials

A lot has been written recently about how to communicate with, retain, or get on the good side of millennials.  In these articles, millennials are often portrayed as some sort of alien life form that we’ll need an interpreter armed with a vanilla soy latte to appease: The Wild and Unpredictable Millennial.

But I have a different view. I believe that the millennial worker is simply a worker. And what is required to communicate with, get the most out of, and retain a millennial worker is the same thing that’s necessary to interact with workers of any age: the good communication and listening skills that we hope all employees use.

I often hear of a disconnect between some of the people that I coach and their millennial employees.  I hear that upper management doesn’t feel as though they are getting the level of commitment from their new hires that they have come to expect.  And they sometimes feel as though their new hires need a lot more ‘hand-holding’ and positive feedback than they are used to giving.

Upper management often has a clear idea of what it wants from its employees. But, what about listening to its employees? Do managers understand the principles behind active listening? Part of the task of getting a point across is the ability to listen to the person you’re talking to. Or as Steven Covey so eloquently put it in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” It’s only when we first listen that we can then communicate our needs and the needs of our company.

I recently finished a coaching engagement with a tech company Vice President, Oliver [the name has been changed for confidentiality], who was having a challenging time connecting with his mostly millennial direct reports. Oliver had exceptional sales and project management skills that had helped him to secure his place as a VP, yet he felt out of touch with his workforce. He could feel them taking lunches that he feared were interviews, and he was concerned about their productivity.

As we talked, Oliver realized he was speaking about his direct reports as though they were aliens. We laughed about it. It was as if he was waiting for his Star Trek translation device to arrive in the mail so that he and his workforce could speak the same language. Fortunately, Oliver turned the corner and accepted that his millennial employees were not aliens.  Yes, they were people. And, to his credit, he realized he’d been stereotyping them—which wasn’t helping.

This kind of stereotyping of or generalizing about the millennial worker is not uncommon.  Stereotyping occurs when what we see or perceive is foreign to us, and we are looking for a way to make sense of it, in a basic and simplifying way. This stereotyping is not unique to millennials.  Baby-boomers were subject to it when they first entered the workforce, too. They were seen as lacking in work-ethic, wanting workplace perks that had never been contemplated, and needing to be happy every moment they were at work... Sound familiar?

Of course, it is not the employer’s job to make sure everyone is ‘happy’ every moment of every day.  Sometimes work is just that—work. But with active listening, employers can help employees feel their time is being well used.  And when employees feels that their time is being well used and that they’re being pushed to the best of their abilities, then they’ll be fully engaged in their work. And that quality of engagement is the hallmark of productivity.

To find a solution to Oliver’s dilemma we looked closer at what he was bringing to the table. We weren’t looking for short-cuts, we were looking for solutions. Oliver mentioned his MBTI. He was concerned that it showed what he perceived to be an innate weakness. His assessment, which was unsurprising to both of us, indicated that he had a challenging time empathizing with people. This might’ve been a bitter pill to swallow, but it gave us the raw material we needed to create a plan to enhance and grow his EQ skills.

With dedicated effort, Oliver learned to reach out to his millennial employees and listen to what they wanted from their jobs.  With that greater understanding, he found that he could more confidently express his own expectations for his employees. In time, Oliver noticed fewer long lunches. He felt a stronger connection with his direct reports and he could relax in the certainty that the company was moving forward as a synthesized whole.

Instead of looking at what the generalized millennial is bringing to the table, it might be worthwhile for upper management to also examine what they are bringing to the table. If they are willing to put in the time to formulate ways to achieve a happy co-existence, then their ROI will be exponential. We may find that that our old ideals of a perfect working environment no longer connect with the emerging workforce. If so, then there is an opportunity to re-examine and change those ideals.

Have you looked at yourself, and your potentially preconceived ideas to see if they align with the needs of all your employees? Perhaps it isn’t so much that we need to understand millennials as it is that we need to understand ourselves.

Alexandra Phillips