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‘Never apologize, never explain’ and other bad ideas for working with millennials

Associate professor at McGill University and an associate fellow at Green Templeton College, Oxford University.

A famous quote is "never apologize, never explain."

I have heard this used by a number of executives. I am not sure it's ever worked, but with millennials, I believe that you need to apologize easily and almost always explain.

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One of the key elements of postmodern thought, which I argue is the worldview that universities have been teaching millennials, is that there is more truth with a small "t" than there used to be and that there are many more and diverse sources of it. This stands in considerable contrast to the Modern thought that my fellow boomers were typically brought up on.

You never had to explain because you had the truth, you were in charge, you had the power, you were the big dog.

This one hierarchical view of absolute truth is simply beyond passé. Ironically, the truth of the matter is that we all have truth to some degree, and my millennial employees have views which are more "with it" and often more valuable than mine. Not only humbly, but perhaps importantly, I need to seriously listen to my much younger employees if we are going to perform well in today's turbulent business environment.

Hence, I need to explain virtually every significant decision, because they want – almost must – hear it from me. At the same time, I need their reactions, insights and ideas on how to improve my thinking to be more in line with what's actually happening. I need to learn to take their input and pivot off in somewhat – or sometimes considerably – different directions than I thought.

Recently I had to miss a class, something I have not done in 20 years of undergraduate teaching, other than for my mother's funeral. In the distant past, I would have just told them I would not be there and leave it at that. Not today. I explain what I am doing and why. If I am embarrassed to do so, I probably shouldn't be doing what I am thinking of doing.

Even more fundamentally, I genuinely want their input on things to improve my ideas, strategies and new directions. Two heads are better than one, so why wouldn't five heads be better than one? So these days, I explain virtually everything I am going to do and then be quiet, listen and re-calibrate. Real-world input makes a world of difference. Of course, once in a while there is something rightly confidential that I don't or can't explain. But I've found that if you explain most things, millennials are forgiving and understanding in instances when you can't; they have learned to trust you.

"Never apologize" just sounds so arrogant in today's world. We are all imperfect; we all fall short. Apologizing easily and quickly is what millennials want, and I absolutely agree with them. It is just plain common sense and appropriate to have humility in 2018. Think of all the arrogant men caught up in sexual harassment; not only do mere apologies not suffice, but their apologies have generally rang hollow and only turned more people against them. Millennials appreciate heartfelt apologies because it reflects humility.

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We older generations are in charge, and that is largely fine. However, we need to realize that at times we are a bit out of touch with today's values. We must be willing to learn new approaches with the good sense to realize that they are generally – though not always – right for today's world.

So today, be willing to easily apologize and almost always, with rare exceptions, explain. Millennials will like you for it, and better business results will generally ensue. And that's why we pay you the big bucks.

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series. For more articles, go to tgam.ca/careers.

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