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Businesses Have It Wrong on Millennials

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It’s easy to blame the millennials and their alleged self-absorbed, attention-depleted, immediate gratification–demanding ways for why it seems these young workers are a bad match for the traditional business world. Companies are tripping over themselves offering everything from Ping-Pong and Pop-Tarts to days off to attend protests in an attempt to keep millennials from jumping ship within a year or two of starting a job.

But I spent this past weekend with a crew of driven, interesting and interested millennials, and we have a number of them working at our office. And I now actually have a new viewpoint. While millennials still need to learn patience and understand that they did not receive a degree in vice president when they got out of college, I believe business is failing in its efforts to integrate millennials into the work world. We have not adapted our managerial styles to the pace at which these young brains move and long to be stimulated.

Thirty years ago, we all knew that we had to “pay our dues”—start at some entry-level job, doing some tasks and the scut work, but we all knew that over time we would learn and be promoted. It was boring, but we dealt with it because it was the way things were done and we understood our place in the hierarchy of the world. We could bide our time and eventually work our way up the ladder.

In today’s modern world of immediate gratification and constant stimulation, we need to find a different way.

The young people I spoke with this weekend (at an alumni sporting event at a leading university) were unanimously disillusioned with the work world and felt utterly unchallenged by their jobs. Mind you, these people were working for leading financial institutions, technology companies and consulting companies—arguably the top and most competitive jobs anyone would want getting out of college—yet they consistently felt that they weren’t being challenged and that their days were boring. Yes, there is the theory that millennials require a sense of purpose and greater good in order to feel satisfied. But I believe the problem is bigger than that.

The fact is that in some ways they are being underutilized. I was with athletes from a Division 1 university, so many had had two full-time jobs—student and athlete. During their college years, these young women worked four-to-six hours a day on sport-related activities in addition to taking classes and studying. They were used to being challenged constantly throughout each day, if not in class then on the field. And if not on the field, then by their teammates and friends. Their classes and sport were demanding, and they had to manage their time to excel at both. These people are performance machines.

Perhaps you think athletes are unique…that they are not a good sample. Every high school and college student today is “overprogrammed.” They all are constantly stimulated by classes, study groups, group projects, clubs, music groups, etc., etc., etc. Their world is filled with people who are energized and energizing.

And they come from homes where their time is programmed from the toddler years to high school graduation—playing sports…going to art school, dance class, science club, robotics club, play practice. You get the picture. Today’s young adults do not know how to be quiet and patiently go with the flow of life. They have been programmed to be busy and stimulated. So, if businesses put them at a desk, give them their job descriptions and let them ease into the work world, they don’t know what to do.

I think instead we should bring them into the work world in a way that is more consistent with the structure in which they were raised.

  • Give constant and clear assignments with specific deadlines. They are used to this kind of structure.
  • Give lots of feedback. Millennials not only want it—they need it. Between social media and the Internet providing immediate feedback on everything…and the hyperoversight by coaches, parents and teachers through childhood…millennials are somewhat lacking in self-soothing skills. Remember when we let babies cry themselves to sleep because it taught them to self-soothe? Well, once they got out of baby-land, we smothered our children with feedback and now they are addicted to it.

If we want millennials to succeed in today’s workplace, then businesses need to focus more on changing the structure of the job than the structure of the perks. We need to manage tightly and supportively to start, as we slowly lengthen the leash and give millennials room to grow and grow up.

On the flipside, millennials, you are not off the hook. You need to be patient and understand that you still have a lot to learn. While you are smart, you are not experienced. Experience, by definition, takes time to collect. If you want to be that president or leader one day, then you will require detailed knowledge of how a company or an industry works, and that is best done from the bottom up…just as you’re doing.

In addition, both businesses and millennials must watch out for the participation-award trap. While these young, hungry minds are eager to contribute and grow, they are not used to negative feedback. Their parents told them that they were wonderful every step of the way and they received participation awards—there were no winners and losers. Ironically, all this focus on building self-esteem actually lowered their self-confidence. We all know that in the adult world, not everything or everyone is a winner.

But there is a way to give feedback.

Businesses: Give the feedback in a constructive and instructive way.

Millennials: Hear the feedback for what it is— learning lessons because everyone involved wants you to succeed.

At one point this weekend, one young woman said, “Why didn’t anyone tell us that our 20s would be so hard?” Well, apparently, the 20s are hard for all of us. The journey of life is a journey of learning. And we all have lessons to learn along the way.

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