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.

Share this post

hi, i'm lindsey!

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.


Learn 25 Practical Ways to Manage Across Generations