Connecting with millennials for a stronger, productive workplace

June 2014 First Focus

Lauren Stiller Rikleen

Lauren Stiller Rikleen

Millennials are often stereotyped as feeling entitled, seeking promotions prematurely and requiring constant praise. Millennials see themselves, however, as buried in historically high student debt and thwarted by an outdated workplace structure.

The American Bar Association book “You Raised Us — Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success and Building Strong Workplace Teams,” by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, is a resource to help millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers create a more effective work environment. The book separates myths from reality and provides practical advice, based on detailed research, to strengthen intergenerational teams and develop the next generation of talented leadership.

YourABA spoke with Rikleen:  

What are some of the stereotypes of millennials? Are any of the stereotypes true?

I wrote “You Raised Us — Now Work With Us” to explore the many stereotypes that millennials face as they enter the workplace: “They are entitled,” “they do not want to work hard,” “they seek constant praise,” “they want to be promoted before they are ready.” The book demonstrates that these are just some of the unfair characteristics assigned to millennials at a very young age.

What are some of the ways that Gen Xers and baby boomers misread millennials in the workplace?

Senior generations frequently misread their younger colleagues’ self-confidence, their inquisitive nature and their desire for ongoing feedback, seeing instead entitled behaviors, a lack of respect for hierarchy and an excessive need for praise. Senior generations can also be resistant to — or even threatened by — the technology that millennials have seemingly mastered since birth. As a result of this clash of generational patterns, millennials end up misunderstood by older colleagues, and in many cases, this can contribute to a negative assessment of their abilities.

What are some ways that boomers and Gen Xers can respond to the opportunities that millennials bring to the workplace?

If the negative perceptions about millennials can be eliminated and replaced with a better understanding of what motivates and drives them at work, the generations can see each other in the positive light that they deserve. Managers should invest time and resources on training millenials in some of the areas where they need focus: for example, workplace communication skills. Managers should also receive training themselves, such as on the ways their own unconscious biases can affect how employees are perceived and evaluated. The results can be transformative for the workplace.

What is, say, one specific strategy from your book on how to build stronger intergenerational teams?

Feedback for millennials is an essential learning tool. Millennials learned and developed new skills with an ongoing feedback stream from parents, teachers and coaches. If senior leaders hope to maximize the potential talents that millennials bring to the workplace, they will need to adapt to the generation’s expectation of, and need for, frequent feedback so they can learn and grow from their assignments. Leaders will likely be surprised and pleased by millennials’ willingness to accept constructive feedback and the speed with which they learn from each assignment.

How can millennials better navigate their way through today’s complex work environment?

The reason I wrote “You Raised Us — Now Work With Us” is to open up a conversation about the importance of all workplace generations investing in millennials’ career development. Simple demographics tell us that millennials will become the next generation of leaders, and at an earlier stage than prior generations, so we all have a stake in their growth and development at work. For boomers and Gen Xers, that may mean investing resources on training millenials in areas such as improving communication skills, increasing their comfort with seeking “reach” assignments and developing a more comprehensive approach to problem-solving. Senior generations need to see that institutional sustainability depends upon the way in which millennials develop as leaders. As part of these efforts, millennials should invest in their own career growth by forming mentor and sponsor relationships at work, building a professional network and using their technology skills in ways that can advance the mission and goals of their workplace — for example, through reverse mentoring.

Any key theme(s) of your research that you might point out?

Millennials expect to benefit from and build upon gains made by other generations to improve the workplace, and they find it frustrating when senior generations want millennials to experience the same difficult path that they traveled. Millennials:

  • Expect to work hard and see themselves as a generation primed to excel.
  • See growth/development limited by less workplace training of young employees.
  • Expect supervisors to provide the feedback to which they are accustomed.
  • See parents as best friends and advisers, but an unintended consequence may be that many are entering adulthood less skilled at independent problem-solving. 
  • Are not as institutionally loyal as past generations, but they do have individual loyalty toward supervisors and managers who care about their career development.     
  • Believe technology should provide greater family flexibility without career penalty.
  • See themselves as unpaid technology teachers to colleagues.
  • Have concerns about work-family integration even before they have children. 

Anything else you would like to add about your book and the topic?

I hope that this book can be a resource for all generations in the workplace. As the executive-in-residence at the Boston College Center for Work & Family, I have seen how many in the corporate sector focus on talent management with a strong goal of leadership development. In the legal profession, the widespread acceptance of attrition as an acceptable business model, the lack of clarity around the criteria for advancement and the reluctance to require ongoing feedback as a retention tool negatively affect the professional growth and development of millennials. When employers and managers become invested in the success of this young generation, the entire workplace benefits.