Millennials tend to be described either as paragons of empathy and creativity or narcissistic over-indulged brats. To borrow a phrase from Jane Austen, they “deserve neither such praise nor such censure”*. They’re just people. Respect them and talk to them in the same way you do with your Boomer and Slacker reports and colleagues. If your normal way of managing, co-working and communicating doesn’t provide the optimal conditions for a Millennial to function creatively and collaboratively then the bad news is that your normal way of working has not provided the optimal conditions for anyone of any generation to fulfil their potential.
I have come across articles from time to time mentioning the differences between the generations. I feel as if there is a theme I am spotting where millennials are being praised for their super-duper capacity for empathy and creativity. There is a lot of well-meaning advice out there for folks (it seems to be pitched at boomers and slackers) who feel they need to hire and then manage these millennials so that the young’uns can work their magic and create innovative STUFF for the businesses these old folks own and / or manage. I have been wondering why I find these articles so damned irritating. I don’t find millennials irritating. I have worked with lots of millennials in my time and had a ball doing it**. But these articles irk me; recently I realised why.
There are amongst us oldies out there a cohort of people who figure they have an issue or problem in that their companies need to ‘innovate or die’. They figure they can help to address this by hiring packs of millennials who, so they are told, are extra creative. I think my problem with this line of thinking is that it offers a solution to a problem that allows current managers to ignore an underlying problem.
Which is this: You can hire millennials by the truckload, but if you insert them into the culture or hierarchies that already exist in your business then you are not going to be able to harvest the insights or ideas from them that you crave. If you figure that your current staff is so bereft of the ability to innovate that you have to outsource this most human of functions to a whole other new generation then the problem is not that your current staff are a pack of dullards. Your problem is that you treat them as if they are. You, as a manager, have failed to generate opportunities for your fellow Boomers, Gen-Xers and the older millennials already on your staff to engage with innovative process. Your work culture, your communication processes, your hierarchies, have all worked to estrange or silence innovative people on your staff. Your problem is not that you don’t have the most creative millennials on your staff. Your problem is that you have been unheedingly walking past the most creative boomers and Xers on your staff every day for years and not doing a bloody thing about that. Unless you address that failing, all the promising young talent in the world is not going to be able to make their ideas known to you.
Am I oversimplifying things? Of course I am! This is just a one page blog, after all. But I really can’t shake the feeling that older business leaders and their managers are working themselves up into a lather over how to hire and then how to communicate with these rarefied beings called millennials; article are written and talks are given in the same fomenting but hushed tones certain people might use in describing that time they saw an extra-terrestrial or a unicorn gambolling on their front lawn.
Futurist Jeremy Scrivens has a wonderful story he tells (see the YouTube clip below) about how a company dealt with a sudden challenge by reaching out to, and then discovering new things about, their existing staff. Watch it and have a ponder about just how well you know your own staff. Do you think they could surprise you? Instead of looking outside your organisation and assuming the answer to the future lies in people as yet unhired, do you need to actually look closer to home first?
I wrote (and then forgot about) this blog months ago, actually. It was a companion blog to one I wrote at the same time and posted last year – On Problem Solving and Black Mould.
*Lizzy Bennet dealing with Miss Bingley in Chapter 9 of Pride and Prejudice.
**For the record – as a contractor I worked at student services departments at RMIT University from 2003-2010 doing stuff that ranged from project management, volunteer management, event management, arts administration and included supporting and / or mentoring student leaders. Lots of fun! Number 1 tip for working with millennials? Um… treat them like any other human being? Empathy and respect works for anyone of any generation.