Managing Younger Generations? What to Let Go Of to Be a Better Leader

Let it go.

If you are a parent of a young child like I am, those three little words immediately conjure images of Elsa, Anna and the 900 times you’ve listened to the Frozen soundtrack over the past few years.

But I think they are also words that we non-Millennials need to embrace when it comes to managing the younger generation.

This post was inspired by a conversation I recently had over coffee and eggs with a consultant in the asset management industry. We had both spoken at an event sponsored by his firm, during which I had presented my key findings on what today’s intergenerational workforce is looking for. He was ruminating on the fact that although he understood what he as a leader needed to do to better manage Millennials, psychologically he was going to have to let go of some baggage to get there.

It reminded me of one of my favorite Millennial management storiesabout the football coach who realized that not only did he have to stop yelling to get the best results from his young players, but that he also had to “let go” of the belief that yelling was the right thing to do.

Over the years I’ve heard many Traditionalists, Boomers and Gen Xers express understanding that Millennials want to work differently, but say that they still find it really challenging to manage in a way that they themselves were never managed. Some say that the “old” way they learned to navigate the workplace worked just fine, even if it wasn’t ideal.

The problem is that the old way isn’t as effective when it comes to managing a new generation of young people.

So in the spirit of January and new beginnings, here are some ways you might consider “letting it go” and finding a more effective way to work with your millennial employees.

Then: Command-and-Control Management Style

Now: Coaching

Common “Command-and-Control” Manager Belief: “You have to learn things the hard way; I throw people into the fire so they can figure it out themselves.”

Yes, we of previous generations were often left to sink or swim. And, well, most of us swam, right? But many Millennials are different. Raised by more involved parents and teachers, they often had more support from authority figures and became used to it. So, what if you tweaked that “sink or swim” approach just a little and gave some guidance to coach younger employees through challenging assignments?

For example, say they need to write a 100-page report. Rather than saying, “Figure it out,” why not reframe it to:

  • Here are some samples that will help you.
  • Why don’t you do an outline and we’ll review it together?
  • I know I’m throwing you in the deep end with such a big project, but I want to see what you can do. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect the first time.

Then: Uniformity

Now: Customization

Common “Uniformity” Manager Belief: “Whatever happened to being at your desk before the boss came in and staying until he or she left?”

We get it: It’s not fair that you had to stay at your desk until your boss left, no matter what. And you never, ever had the option to work from home. But most people nowadays agree that everyone in today’s workforce benefits from an increased focus on work/life integration and flexibility, not just those who have paid their dues.

Instead of insisting on a one-size-fits-all approach to managing people, what would happen if you talked to your staff about how they work best and what the real work hour requirements are? Someone who has a brutal commute might be significantly more productive working from home one day a week or shaving off some time from their lunch break to duck out before rush hour. Or maybe your team needs to all be together for a 9 a.m. daily meeting, but then each person can create the schedule that works best for them. Or maybe some seasons are incredibly busy and require long hours, but you can be a bit more flexible at other times of the year.

The point is to think about these issues and find a workable plan, not to insist on a work model that is no longer always necessary. Most employers I speak with agree that productivity and client or customer service are significantly more important that face-time at the office. Finding ways to customize the workplace can work for everyone and lead to better productivity and employee engagement.

Then: Need-to-Know Basis

Now: Access and Transparency

Common “Need-to-Know Basis” Manager Belief: “‘That’s above your pay grade’ is a perfectly rational answer to an employee’s request for information or access to opportunity.”

Did you ever wonder if there was a method behind your boss’ seemingly mad directions and decisions? I bet there usually was; you probably just didn’t know the big picture because your boss didn’t share it with you. In the past, most junior employees were on a “need-to-know” basis most of the time and were expected to get work done in a seeming vacuum. So, when you spent hours compiling anonymous sales figures, it just seemed like busy work.

What if, instead, your boss had told you that the account manager used those sales figures to make the entire department look good or to close an exciting new deal? It would have made a lot more sense and felt less like drudgery. You might even have injected a little verve into your work if you understood the importance.

Telling someone the “why” behind a seemingly mundane task can be incredibly powerful. We just need to let go of the fact that no one did that for us. So, maybe no one in upper management knew your name way back when. Don’t you kinda wish they would have?

Are You Up for the Challenge?

As an occasionally “bitter” Gen Xer myself, I understand completely that it can be hard to make management changes that seem to give Millennials an “easy way out.”

But I’m not telling you to try these adjustments because it’s the nice thing to do, but because I know, based on over a decade of experience teaching them to my clients, that they work.

Don’t take my word for it: Why not see if you get better results if you let go of some “old” management techniques and try a different approach? I’d love to know how it goes.

Willing to give it a try? Share your experiences with all of us in the comments below or on Twitter.

Lindsey Pollak is the leading expert on millennials and the multigenerational workplace, trusted by global companies, universities and the world’s top media outlets. A New York Times bestselling author and keynote speaker, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her presentations have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!” Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.

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Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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