Much advice has been offered in recent years to managers who have to oversee millennials, a generation with a different attitude to the workplace. But now the tables are turning.
Millennials, also known as Generation Y, were born from 1981 to 2000, so the oldest ones have entered their thirties. They are now starting to infiltrate management ranks. They need advice about how to adapt to their new roles and, perhaps, rewrite the rules of management to fit their ways.
Brad Karsh is a Chicago-based corporate trainer whose team has presented workshops to more than 25,000 individuals in that age group and who interviewed many for Manager 3.0, a book he wrote with colleague Courtney Templin.
One of the key things to remember, he said, is that millennials are highly collaborative. They grew up enrolled by their parents in sports and many other activities with a team ethos. “They don’t like the word ‘boss,’” he noted in an interview.
Collaboration can be welcome, helping a boss to gain consensus and buy-in. But the downside is that managers sometimes have to go against the grain and make unpopular decisions, and that will be a difficult skill for many millennials to learn.
“It’s hard, when the four other people in the room want to do X, for a manager to say ‘I think that’s wrong.’ That will be hard for millennials to do. They will need to learn managerial courage and be more decisive in decision-making. Trying to get consensus keeps pushing off the decision – it can be like a hung jury, going on and on,” Mr. Karsh said.
He recommends they remain committed to their collaborative, consensual impulses. But at the same time, they will need to give themselves parameters for when a decision must be made. Once they reach that deadline, they will have to make the call, even if others don’t agree.
Another millennial impulse is transparency. Again, within limits, it’s fine. But as managers, they will have to be careful not to divulge company information that needs to be kept secret – say, that layoffs are coming next week. That seems obvious. But millennials don’t like to keep secrets from teammates, and will have to learn to hold back.
Millennials tend to lead blended lives, in which work and personal lives mesh, which means they view workmates as friends and want to share. Mr. Karsh noted that, for older generations, when someone asks colleagues how their weekend went, the answer is usually one word. “Great.” “Fabulous.”
Not millennials. They go on and on about their weekend, seeming to spare no details, starting with the ride home from work. “They need to watch that they don’t give too much information in such situations,” he said.
Millennials often have many close friends at work. But as they become managers, like those in generations before them, they will have to renegotiate relationships.
“It’s okay to be friendly with the people you work with but you don’t want to be best friends with them,” Mr. Karsh said. “It’s fine to go out for a drink on Friday night after work, but don’t go every Friday night and end up sleeping on a subordinate’s couch.”
That friendship on Friday night can backfire when the person comes in on Tuesday and tries to take advantage of the relationship. He predicts this will be a dilemma for millennial managers (more so than for older generations), because they want to be friends with their colleagues.
Millennials can be very high achievers. They are used to being applauded for their work – “overtrophied,” as he puts it, winning ribbons and trophies for 12th place in competitions, and benefiting from grade inflation in schools. But there are no trophies for finishing in 12th place as a manager or unit. The scrutiny can be tough.
Because they may not be used to failure, millennials will have a tendency to be risk-averse, he said. They will need to learn that sometimes in the world of work, you must fail – otherwise you hold back, unnecessarily, and lose out from that approach.
They will also have to learn to communicate – really communicate. It may seem they communicate incessantly, with text messages and social media, but that’s not the same as sitting down face-to-face, and having a detailed conversation to probe ideas carefully or deal with a prickly situation. Such conversations are an immediate give and take, with a different rhythm and tone, which they will have to assimilate.
As for those working for millennials, expect them to break down walls – literally, for open-concept offices – and break down the hierarchy. They don’t believe in the “up or out” promotional premise of the past in terms of climbing the ladder, and see value in skipping sideways if it offers a fulfilling role. Equality is their instinctual approach; witness the difference between social movements of the 1960s with clear leaders and those such as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring where action occurred without leaders.
“Millennials are not better or worse,” Mr. Karsh said. They are just different, and will need to adapt to management.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter