Yelling Doesn’t Work: How to Give Negative Feedback to Millennials | Lindsey Pollak's Blog

Yelling Doesn’t Work: How to Give Negative Feedback to Millennials

Yelling Doesn’t Work: How to Give Negative Feedback to Millennials “They want feedback. All. The. Time.”

“They can’t handle any criticism.”

“They want a trophy for showing up.”

These are some of the most common complaints I hear from my corporate clients and speaking audiences about today’s millennial workers.

While every millennial is unique and shouldn’t be stereotyped, I do feel this criticism often proves to be valid. In my experience and research, many of today’s young professionals expect a lot more praise than other generations expected, and many millennials struggle – and sometimes shut down – when they feel criticized.

While most people don’t enjoy being yelled at, workers of previous generations often found it familiar or even motivating. And they often don’t mind working for long stretches without receiving any feedback at all.

Why do most millennials feel differently? Here are two reasons:

Many Millennials have received positive feedback their whole lives; why would they expect anything different at work?

Parents, teachers and athletic coaches tended to be more punishment-focused in previous eras. Even if traditionalists, baby boomers and Gen Xers didn’t love being reprimanded at work (I know I didn’t!), the feeling was familiar.

For many Millennials, particularly those raised in the American middle or upper-middle class, parenting, teaching and coaching standards changed to a more supportive, friendly, positive-psychology style. Grade inflation and increased academic counseling extended this trend into the college years.

So it’s not surprising that many young people expect the workplace will be similar to all of their earlier experiences with authority. (And yeah, many Millennials really have received at least one trophy for participation.)

Technology and social media provide constant, instant feedback.

The modern world now provides all of us with a constant stream of feedback and positive reinforcement:

  • Post a photo to Facebook or Instagram and watch the “likes” add up.
  • Finish a level on a video game and rack up points, badges or ranking against your friends (or the entire globe).
  • Log onto a website, buy a product online or download an app and instantly receive a thank you or special offer.

Yes, we all experience this responsiveness, but remember many “digital native” millennials have never known a world without this kind of nonstop, instant, primarily positive recognition.

All of which is to say that millennials’ need for feedback is not going to go away. So what do you do if you’re a manager who wants to give a young professional negative feedback?

Don’t yell. Coach.

My advice is simple: Don’t yell.

Even if yelling and cursing motivated you when you were young, even if that’s “the way it’s always been done,” even if they “deserve it” and “need to toughen up,” yelling just makes the yeller feel better. It rarely does anything to solve the actual problem, which is whatever mistake was made.

What works for giving negative feedback to Millennials is to take a coaching approach. (Yes, I know some coaches yell, but stay with me.)

The job description of a coach is to teach, train, condition, motivate, develop and – yes – win. Developing a coaching mentality doesn’t mean you can’t manage young people with discipline, high standards and competitiveness. What it means is that you approach the process as a supporter, mentor and teacher, not an adversary.

Why else does a coaching approach work for giving negative feedback to Millennials? Coaches are in the business of improving their coachees, and numerous surveys report that training and personal development are millennials’ top motivators and retention drivers. When you position negative feedback as an opportunity for self-development, millennials are more likely to listen and respond – and stay with your organization as they improve.

If you are considering the coaching approach to millennial management, rest assured you’ll be in good company. Check out the way the college football’s No. 2 team, various NFL teams and the U.S. Navy are adapting their management practices to better motivate and win with today’s Millennials.

How have you succeeded in giving negative feedback to Millennials – or any employees for that matter? Please share in the comments or via Twitter.

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  1. Yelling Doesn’t Work: How to Give Negative Feedback to Millennials - Career Advice says:

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  2. Excellent post.

    Coming fron a sport psychology background and now the father of 3 young children, it blows my mind how the youth sport leagues continue to give kids trophies for just showing up. This approach seems to do more harm than benefit to children later in life.

    I wonder to what degree the ability to just “click” and move on to the next thing has reinforced their low willingness to sit, wait and solve things.

    I would also love to read your thoughts on the idea behind “likes” and the impact on validating their actions and overall self-esteem.

    Thank you.


    • @Doug – Thank you for the comments. As a mom of a young child myself, I also think about this from a parenting perspective. While I think it’s important to build self-esteem in kids and young adults, we seem to have lost the willingness to let children fail, which is such an important learning experience. I see a lot of high potential Millennials get into their first job and experience failure for the first time and they fall apart because they don’t know how to handle it.

      In terms of the “like” culture, my opinion is that it’s made people too externally focused — that we only perceive experiences/events/comments/etc. as successful if other people like them. On the positive side, I’m hoping we’re reaching a bit of saturation — many Millennials and younger Gen Zs (if that’s the term we are going to use) tell me that they are also getting tired of the “like” culture and seeking out social networks and experiences that are not so focused on public praise. We shall see!

      – Lindsey

    • Matt says:

      I remember when I was 8 i got a baseball trophy for showing up. I remember thinking it was bullshit, and laughing with my dad about what a farce is was.

  3. Imran Soudagar says:

    I totally agree with your views, todays generation needs instant gratification. And if they dont find instant gratification via Likes and comments or praise then they tend to get sad. And yes you are right in saying that they must not be yelled at. Instead they must be cared and made to understand their problem.

  4. vivek says:

    gr8 info… thank u so much.

  5. Scheherazade says:

    Hi Lindsay,

    I think the coaching metaphor is right on.

    Chiming in to say that the millennials I work with are HUNGRY for good, actionable feedback. All that praise is empty; ambitious, thoughtful people want clear ways to improve, and so I find it is very possible to tear apart work, and be very challenging and critical, if you combine that feedback with: 1) a kind and supportive encouragement — that the person has the talent to succeed, and is on the right track, and
    2) that you believe in them and are eager to see them improve, and
    3) there’s a clear path to success that you can show them.

    Ambitious millennials will bring the work ethic and will thank you for clear feedback if you do it well; they aren’t fooled by the “participation trophy” and are eager to learn how to improve substantively.

    • @Scheherazade – Thanks for the comment! So glad you agree with the coaching metaphor and I appreciate your additional insight.
      – Lindsey

    • Cameron says:

      I agree with your insight as far as what it take to motivate a millenial. However, how would you suggest disciplining a repeat offender? Someone who has made multiple mistakes? I can’t wrap my head around telling that employee he is doing a great job. Because that quite simply isn’t true. If the employee stays on this same track, he/she will lose his/her job. At what point does that that idea need to become aware to the employee? It is not all rainbows and sunshine, where are the consequences?

      • @Cameron – Thank you for the question. I think it’s imperative to give honest negative feedback, particularly to a “repeat offender.” What I think works best is what good managers have always done: offered feedback in a coaching style designed to help the person improve. It is also totally fair and appropriate to explain what the consequences will be if the mistakes continue to happen. What I don’t think works is yelling. What are your thoughts? – Lindsey

        • Cameron says:

          I appreciate the prompt response. I suppose the trouble that I constantly run into is the fine line between honest negative feedback and hurting the employees feelings. Not because of my tone of voice, or any other red flags, but because my employees are overly sensitive to correction. I don’t know how to even coach them, any correction at all puts them in the “closed off” stage. I’m at a loss, perhaps management just isn’t my forté.

  6. […] don’t forget how much millennials value recognition. Positive feedback, praise, “trophies” (such as a certificate or a small trinket) and public […]

  7. Melissa Mouton says:

    I am a manager of about 18 millennials and I didn’t understand why I was having such a hard time being a manager. I’ll start by saying that technically I am a millennial myself, born in 86. However I have 4 brothers and 2 sisters, 5 of which are older. My parents were not the overly supportive type and I didn’t get trophys for participating. For all practical purposes I am a generation xer.
    The mind boggling thing about my millennial employees is that while so much is expected of myself, the same standards aren’t placed on each of them. Why must my life be so bogged down with their neediness while they have the perfect home/work balance and I struggle to give them all the attention they need?
    Why should I be devoted to them when their loyalty is so fickle?
    I’m beyond frustrated. I certainly have hopes to manage them in a way that brings out their best but it’s so exhausting and difficult to keep up. You fix one persons issue and the next pops up. Its similar to having 18 babies and right when you’ve finished feeding one another cries. And this NEVER ends. EVER. Seriously Managements salary should go up so high for having to deal with this generation! What’s going to happen when millennials are managing themselves? They will both (employees and managers) want coddling, both will want time separated from work, both will want attention. Really, the work force will implode. Its ridiculous and the parents that created this mess should be so ashamed. This generation thinks so highly of themselves yet delivers so little. Hopefully I can manage these people though, because I really have to get good at it

    • @Melissa – Thank you for sharing your comments and frustrations. Have you found any strategies that have worked for managing Millennials and also keeping yourself happy? I’d love to know!

      – Lindsey

    • Kerry says:

      Melissa, I completely agree with you. I am at a loss with my current situation.

      I was born in 1982 but do NOT consider myself a millennial. I have always had a good work ethic and what made me feel accomplished at work was doing my job well, meeting deadlines, learning from mistakes, etc. Yes, a pat on the back is always nice, but certainly not needed. If anything, I do not like to be micro-managed and I never had to be, because I complete the work that was given to me without being asked twice.

      Now, being a manager of 10 millennials, I find it very difficult to deal with them. While I am used to doing my job and not asking any questions, it seems I have to motivate them, or they won’t get their work done. I am not saying I should not encourage my team, but do I really need to dangle a prize at the end of a project and/or repeat to them over and over to complete a task by the end of the day? This seems crazy to me. In my mind, this is your job, so get it done. No one is forcing you to be here, so if you don’t want the job, someone else will.

      Within my meetings, I try to include them in the goings-on of upper management, ask them their ideas, encourage them to speak to me about their goals, their concerns and so on. For the most part, they never provide any feedback. It’s crickets out there. They “appear” to be happy, but for some, they are obviously not, as they give half-assed participation. I hear the whispers and rumbles at the water cooler about certain projects I give them, etc. And these projects are very simple (maybe boring at times, but easy to accomplish).

      Therefore, for repeat offenders of not getting work done or making mistakes, I find it difficult to discipline. I want to yell sometimes, but of course, I never do. I can give the tough love speech, but I honestly feel like it goes in one ear and out the other. I just cannot justify kissing their behinds to get them to work.

      Someone must have a real concrete answer to this dilemma. I do wonder sometimes (like Melissa above) if management is for me. Where I used to love coming to work, I am dreading Sunday nights more and more, because i am tired of being their babysitter.

      • @Melissa and @Kerry – Thank you both for sharing your perspectives. My book “Becoming the Boss” shares millennial management strategies in much more detail, but here are a few thoughts:

        – You are not alone. Your concerns are, unfortunately, common with many managers of young professionals. I feel your frustration.

        – Have you thought about the expectations you are setting at the beginning of a new employee’s time? Transparency up front about your expectations (and the consequences for not performing well) can be somewhat helpful. Evan a somewhat open conversation with your team about the challenges you are having might be a positive step.

        – Some managers have had success giving younger employees responsibility for each other’s work. This takes some pressure off of you as the manager and also shows them how challenging it is to manage and get things done. Perhaps you can assign a leader for certain projects?

        – Do you have a few mentors who are longtime, successful managers? Every manager has dealt with challenging employees of every generation and they might have some good tips.

        – Read “The One Minute Manager” — it’s a really practical, time-tested book for all generations.

        I hope this is helpful and I hope some other readers will weigh in with additional advice and support!

        – Lindsey

        • Ri Chang says:

          I empathize and I am a millennial myself, born in ’92 and all. I have some personal perspectives that I hope are useful but may not be contextualized, so do disregard it if you think it’s incorrect.

          I think a lot of this stems from fundamental differences in values and someone needing to change to adapt to the other, and more and more, that’s the manager and not the millennial employees and that breeds resentment.

          I just want to point out that millennials are raised by the generations before them, aka the baby boomers and Gen Xer. Millennials did not come up with the idea of participation trophies, they did not ask to become digital natives, they were nurtured and made to be this way. And I think it’s hard not to resent ‘YOUR generation made me this way but you hate everything about me’.

          Resentment and disrespect which affects the execution of strategies.

          It would seem that millennials need to earn the respect of the previous generation and the previous generation assumes what they’ve done already deserves the respect of millennials but that’s simply not true.

          Millennials seem to be fundamentally viewed as inferior and that nothing they do will ever be enough to earn the respect necessary, and it’s very hard to be enough when t is set at ‘you’ve never suffered the way we did’, we can’t help it if world war two didn’t happen in our era, or if corporeal punishment got banned. We weren’t the ones who petitioned for these changes either. I’m not going to jump through any hoops or make any changes if I know that it’s never going to be enough. A millennial can’t win on Gen X and baby boomer terms, so why try? They might as well wait for this generation to die out/fade out and run things the way that works for them. You’re all just collateral damage in this waiting game.

          Meanwhile, a millennial is unlikely to feel like the generation before them deserves respect, and I know it sounds preposterous, given that millennials won’t have any of the comforts they have if the generation before didn’t toil away. But millennials also see all the debt and problems they’re saddled with, which on top of the ‘lets all hate on millennials’ culture doesn’t help.

          Basically, there’s a lot of animosity on both sides.

          I don’t think anyone will change themselves for the sake of people who don’t like them and they don’t like. Especially when that person is the ‘other’. What I am sensing is a lot of ‘millennials VS Gen X/baby boomers’ ‘Managers VS Employees’, the two parties seem to be in adversarial positions, and if one wins the other has to lose. And managers seem to be ‘losing’ by having to change their managerial style.

          Maybe a narrative of being on the same team, where your success is my success will help. Explaining to them that if they can compromise or adhere to some what millennials feel is archaic methods means making your life easier which will in turn make THEIR lives easier; creating a scenario where both parties compromise equally instead of one side changing more than the other towards a common good might be better for motivation.

          After all, why should we want to be loyal or caring to someone who fundamentally hates us? Just as managers who feel frustrated that they need to change their life to adapt to millennials who haven’t done anything for the manager, the manager hasn’t done anything to deserve the millennial changing THEIR entire way of life and core value system. Nobody wins in this mindset.

          Also, yelling only works if you either have the person’s respect or fear. Millennials have less to lose. They already don’t have the respect of generations before them, everyone expects the worse of them, they’re never going to be able to afford a house, a family or reach any of the goals the generation before them has set. There simply aren’t stakes in place for the millennial to be willing to compromise, change or commit to. If you say ‘then at least for the good of the world, they should buck up, what’s the world ever done for millennials anyway? (Techncially a lot, I recognize this, but it’s hard to see when all that’s aimed at them is derision). And I think any human when put in such a situation will behave in the same unmotivated, couldn’t-care-less way.

          Finally ,I honestly think what’s useful is if someone just sat both generations down and asked the other flat out what their ideal work life and personal life looks like. And what’s an achievable inbetween and work towards it together. They is listening without judgement during this exercise. You can’t mock a millnnial for caring a lot about likes and the millennial can’t mock the Gen Xer for caring about owning houses and family.

          At the end of the day, if you can tell your millennial subordinate is patronizing you, rest assured they know when you’re doing the same to them even when you’re and trying new coociation strategies and they’re not going to respond.

  8. Melissa Mouton says:

    I forgot to mention that you are exactly right. Yelling doesn’t work. Nagging doesn’t work. Which is why I’ve looked up this info, because I’ve done it all…twice. I’m going to come up with a New strategy now to include all their strengthes in making the team better. Crossing my fingers!!

    -one very tired manager

  9. CUISINEYAY says:

    I’m curious — as a Gen Xer, when I entered the workforce it was assumed that my senior colleagues deserved respect and deference. I’ve worked hard to get where I am. I expect my junior employees to take direction without arguing or flat-out telling me they’re not going to do as I’ve asked. How do you explain the concept of “insubordination” to a Millennial? How do you suggest we balance the need for experienced, senior employees to feel respected and valued by their younger colleagues with this expectation that we coddle the younger ones so they don’t quit every time you criticize them?

    • @CUISINEYAY – I feel your frustration. It’s hard when you’ve just paid your dues to have the next generation come along and not want to do the same. In my opinion, the balance is to acknowledge we are now in different times and can’t expect “deference” based on a longer tenure and more experience. We need to coach more and help younger professionals see the bigger picture of why their entry-level role is important to the big picture of the organization and why respect for others with more experience is important and may get them farther, faster. I know this can be frustrating when perhaps you never received such coaching, but it can be effective and make everyone productive, which is the ultimate end goal. – Lindsey Pollak

  10. Cameron says:

    I have been managing 5-10 millenials for the last 2 years. Being a millennial myself, born in 1989, I find it extremely difficult to constructively correct them. At what point is it ok for them to see your upset? How would you recommend disciplining an employee who has consistently failed at the same task multiple times, each time receiving detailed instruction on how to prevent the same outcome next time? That is my struggle, I am told I am too hard on my employees, but at what point do I say enough is enough? I want each and everyone of them to succeed, but how would I approach an employee who is constantly doing things wrong? Making mistake after mistake, often times repeating them.

    Thank you,

  11. We have found in our organization full of Millennials that even when we provide critical feedback, it doesn’t seem to resonate. When an employee is underperforming, we provide that critical feedback. If he/she doesn’t improve and we have to terminate, they always seem at a loss as to why. Some feedback strategies, such as the sandwich method, when you add the critical/negative feedback “sandwiched” between two compliments, do not seem to work because the employee only remembers the positive remarks. It appears that there is an overall lacking in self-awareness with this generation. If the critical feedback is sugar coated or accompanied by a positive, it is not even recognized. I’m amazed how many terminations are complete surprises by these low performers who never seem to think they ever received the critical feedback.

    Has anyone else ever faced this phenomenon? How have you combatted it?

    • @Jennifer – Thank you for the comment and that sounds incredibly frustrating. Have you thought about including “ability to take and implement constructive feedback” as a topic to discuss in your interview process or an issue to chat about with employees during their performance reviews? I hope others will weigh in with suggestions, too! – Lindsey

  12. Mike says:

    Although I’m older than a 17-year old, I’m still viewed as one of the gang when it comes to the younger generation. I think bosses get frustraighted with younger employees more quickly because they expect the younger employee to think, feel, and act like themselves. If someone is under performing, regardless of how many times you’ve commented on their mistakes, have you ever stopped to think that maybe the position to which that employee is in is the wrong one? Maybe that job just isn’t for them. Also, bosses, as hard as this may be for you to hear, especially from a younger person, in today’s generation, we younger bunch view the workplace and work in a whole different mannor than you do. It’s not disrespectful, its just different. If there’s a problem, we expect you, the authority figure, to remain calm and talk to us in a calm, reasonable manner. Some bosses overreact and jump to conclusions too quickly. But the minute you start yelling, you can bet that that employee, especially if they’re a younger one, is going to bolt out the door. No, I’ve never been a boss, and don’t ever want to be one. Just from common sense, I’m sure that its certainly not easy running a business, but you can’t expect to solve anything by yelling. I would recommend encouraging the employees to try solving problems together as a team, rather than coming to you for everything. Then, if there’s a really serious problem, then they can come to you. See if that works.

    • Alan says:

      Your statement is exactly what we are frustrated about. In one breath you say that your generation is different and also imply that it’s up to us to find you the right position to suit your needs. (If you want that, then take the initiative and work your way into that position – don’t expect us to do it for you), then in that same moment you say that you expect us to be the authority figure and remain calm. This is the point you’re missing: with authority comes responsibility. We (I’m speaking for my generation here) feel that Millennials seem to expect all the privilege and authority, but not the accountability that comes with it. You can’t have one without the other… that’s just life.

      • Ri Chang says:

        Alan, I’d like to point out a miscommunication that seems to be happening. I don’t think Mike is saying that they the, and millennials by extension, expect the boss to find them the position that suits them. But to understand that chances are the cause of underperforming isn’t that the employee is not incapable or lazy as is currently assumed. Your comment is exactly what Mike is describing as ‘ jump to conclusions too quickly’.

        Also, I fail to see how remaining calm is related to privilege and accountability.

        I do not think that the idea ability to remain calm under stress is an unreasonable standard to hold someone in a leadership position to. If your argument is that millennials cannot be held to this standard, aka are not capable of handling authority because they do not have the capacity for accountability and responsibility because they find it acceptable to underperform simply because a role is not what they like, then yes, I agree with you. If an employee cannot prove that they are responsible, why would the boss assign them the responsibility of solving a problem?

        And I think pointing this out to the millennial might be the most helpful for both parties. If a millennial knows what are the milestones and standards they need to hit in order to earn the treatment they want, it might be much more helpful. I recognize that perhaps those standards and milestones seem like ‘common sense’ to you, but this is where generational differences come in. It’s like Japanese people finding westerners rude because they don’t bow. Both sides need to explain and more importantly LISTEN to each other.

        And based on what I’m seeing, both generations are very loud but neither side is actually listening. No one’s empathizing, when that’s what both sides want. The other generation to empathize with them. So maybe they’re not that different.