When Baby Boomers and Millennials Become Colleagues: An Interview with Lauren Stiller Rikleen

Lauren Stiller Rikleen is a nationally recognized expert on developing a thriving, diverse and multi-generational workforce.  As president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, Lauren conducts workshops, speaks at conferences, retreats, and professional events, and provides training programs focusing on: unconscious bias; strengthening intergenerational relationships in the workplace; and women’s leadership and advancement.  Lauren is also an author and the Executive-in-Residence at the Boston College Center for Work & Family in the Carroll School of Management. Her latest book, You Raised Us — Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams, provides new insights and rebuts old stereotypes about Millennials as they begin their careers in the midst of an economic crisis, and offers practical recommendations for all generations to help navigate their differences.

I recently connected with Rikleen to find out why Baby Boomers and Millennials struggle to work well together as colleagues, what Boomers can do about it and how Millennials are likely to change as they mature as employees. Here’s what she had to say.

Baby Boomers are the parents who raised and love the Millennials. How did they come to be so frustrated by having Millennials as their colleagues in the workplace?

This was one of my primary motivations for writing You Raised Us – Now Work With Us. I have long been fascinated by the disconnect between parents who raised their own kids to be self-confident, inquisitive, goal-oriented, in charge of their own destiny, and to speak up for themselves, and their response to these same behaviors when other people’s children, similarly raised, come into their workplaces. When I point this issue out in my workshops or presentations, Boomer parents generally respond with a good-natured chuckle and admit to not having thought about the comparison.

The fact is, there are always pluses and minuses to being raised in a certain way. Everything has ramifications and it is important to understand all the wonderful qualities that Millennials bring with them as well as some of the limitations that arise from the way in which they were raised as well as the societal and economic influences on their adolescent years. Finally, it is also important to stress that in any analysis of generations, we are talking about cohorts of millions of people, so over-generalizing is always a danger. A generational lens is simply one way of making sense of patterns and trends that develop over time.

What are the main unfair stereotypes Baby Boomers believe about Millennial employees?

The stereotypes about Millennials have been around for a long time:

  • “They are entitled.”
  • “They are unwilling to work hard.”
  • “They think they deserve the corner office shortly after starting work.”
  • “They lack loyalty to their employer.”
  • “They always want to be told how well they are doing.”

These misperceptions are at the root of many of the workplace challenges affecting how the generations work together.

What frustrates Millennials about Baby Boomers?

What was particularly interesting to me in researching and writing You Raised Us – Now Work With Us is that, overall, Millennials do not bring the same critical generation lens to their interactions with more senior workers that those senior workers bring to their inter-generational experiences. As a pattern of their upbringing, Millennials are used to having adults around who take an interest in them. When they have a negative experience with a more senior person in the workplace, they are not necessarily going to extrapolate that experience as reflecting negatively on the entire older generation. That is not generally the situation in reverse — Boomers and Xers are much quicker to conclude that a negative experience or two with a younger person is indicative of a generational trend.

What do older, more experienced managers need to be prepared to teach Millennials to help them succeed in the workplace?

There are a number of steps managers can take to help Millennials succeed in the workplace.  Of critical importance: senior generations should provide far more frequent feedback than what is generally given in the more traditional annual performance appraisal process. Feedback is a crucial learning and development tool.  It is also a learned skill, which means that offering training on the topic can make a significant difference in the workplace and help improve performance.  The fact is, all employees can benefit from learning how to give and receive feedback.

Managers should also think differently about the orientation process, viewing it as a longer-term opportunity to train new employees in the culture of the workplace. Research shows that Millennials care about understanding where their job fits within the bigger picture. A detailed orientation process provides an opportunity to ground new employees in all aspects of the employer’s goals and strategies, and helps them better understand how their job matters to the mission of the organization.

Another critical area of importance is workplace flexibility. Global data demonstrates that Millennials care deeply about work-life integration, and expect that they will manage their personal, family, and work responsibilities better than prior generations. They see technology as one important tool for offering true autonomy and flexibility – and not simply a tether to the workplace, as it too often is today.

If managers are to be ready for the wave of younger workers entering the workforce, they will become engaged in developing and implementing transparent ways in which flexibility can be achieved for all of their employees. This means that there is not a special workplace flexibility arrangement provided secretly to one employee that is not offered to others. The data also makes clear that autonomy and flexibility are achieved most effectively when there is top-down participation, where flexibility is viewed as a business strategy that improves morale and optimizes effectiveness.

How do you think Millennials will change as they begin to take on management roles and mature as members of the workforce?

Over time, Millennials will learn to adapt to some aspects of the workplace. For example, when Millennials first begin work, there are clear communication challenges that arise, and that will take some time to understand and address.  There are so many ways to communicate and, even as the generations tend to have their preferences (by memo, face-to-face, by phone, by email, by text message, etc.), within those generational patterns are numerous individual differences. This takes some time to figure out and requires adaption to communicate effectively.

Another example may be developing greater political and problem-solving skills.  Adapting to various personalities in the workplace can be difficult, as anyone who has ever had to navigate office politics has learned. Moreover, becoming comfortable solving problems when little guidance or supervision is offered is hard.  This is an area where Millennials may have a steeper learning curve because they may be more used to adults in their lives playing a greater role in helping them solve problems.  Learning to take risks and to work independently are skills learned over time.

It is equally important for senior generations to understand what Millennials are unlikely to change, however. Millennials are not likely to adapt to a workplace built on a model that assumes a family structure (one spouse at home, one in the workplace) that hardly exists anymore.  Successful workplaces of the future will provide flexibility as a core employee benefit.  Research shows that Millennials value transparency in the workplace and are, therefore, likely to lead with a flexible, open, less hierarchical leadership style.

The more workplaces understand their younger employees as the future leaders that they will be, the better positioned employers can be to develop systems and policies that move towards a more productive future.

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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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