A staple of seemingly useful work-related articles is the “How to Manage Millennials” genre. Such articles are worse than useless — they are positively damaging. Here’s why you should not bother reading them and what you should do instead.
Groups Aren’t Coherent or Cohesive
Millennials, Gen X, Boomers — these are categories defined exclusively by age. This is one of the least-useful predictors of a person’s values, traits, or actions, with the sole exceptions of perhaps predicting whether or not they will have children (and how many), what their major purchases in life will be, and how they will die. For example, the vast majority of kids are born to parents between 20 and 40 years of age. Major purchases, like cars or houses, tend to occur around around certain ages.
If you were marketing to them, you’d be deeply interested in the fact that Millennials are more willing to make purchases on their smart phones, or which cultural references will resonate with them (the 9/11 attack but not the collapse of the Iron Curtain).
Other than that, what do Millennials have in common with each other that’s different enough to be useful as guidance for how you should manage them?
Bait and Switch
When “How to Manage Millennials” articles do have useful guidance, it’s unrelated to the differences in the generations. Advice to managers like:
- Create diverse teams
- Realize different people are motivated differently
- Celebrate small victories
- Invest in training
These are all good ideas and are in no way connected to what generation someone is part of. Of course, people with more experience will value experience, while newcomers will want their talents to count for more. That’s true for every generation.
And seriously, do you really need to consult the Barclays 6-Generations Map to figure out that a person with less experience needs more training?
You Don’t Manage Groups
Marketing is a one-to-many activity, and we shouldn’t begrudge marketers their Millennial maunderings. For researchers and demographic planners, studying the generations makes sense. However, you do not manage groups. You manage individuals. The variance between individuals vastly outranks the variance between generations, let alone the similarities within a generation.
Remember, as a manager, you are responsible for making each person who reports to you as effective as possible.
So, which of these pieces of information will help you better decide whether to give the task of managing the new SharePoint server to Alice or to Bob?
- Demographics: Alice is a female and Bob is a male.
- Generations: Alice is a Gen-Xer (who are supposed to be moderately tech-savvy) and Bob is a Millennial (reported to be “digital natives”).
- Goals: Alice told you in your last one-on-one that she wants to increase her technical expertise. Bob told you in your last one-on-one that he hopes to move into sales in a few years.
- Appreciations: Alice values being praised verbally. Bob is more moved by a thoughtful gift.
If you answered anything other than 3, you’re no manager.
Thinking You Manage Groups Distorts Your Thinking
As soon as you start to think you can, or should, manage groups rather than individuals, you’ll give yourself permission to not do the hard work of getting to know each of your direct reports as unique human beings.
When you think of managing groups as a single unit, you’ll start to generalize about motivation, information absorption style, active learning style, and communications style. That thinking will make you a lousy manager. Each of these things varies dramatically from one Millennial to the next, indeed from one human being to the next (also, replacing one set of stereotypes with another isn’t going to help you manage better either).
You don’t have to do appalling things to drive people away — just treat them like indistinguishable demographic entities and your indifference to their individuality will lead them to leave.
What to Think About Instead
Remember that your job as a manager is to maximize the current and future effectiveness of each person reporting to you.
I teach my CEO and senior executive clients to create a Player Lineup Chart to help them look for and remember a wide range of personal attributes about their people.
As a manager, you should make your own Player Lineup Chart. Include these attributes:
- Personal Goals – helps you connect their personal goals to the team’s tasks. (Have Alice manage the SharePoint server.)
- Values – helps you help them see how their values are served by the team’s work. (Write Alice a thank-you note, but buy Bob a gift, to show each your appreciation.)
Information Absorption Style
- Listener – give this person more verbal briefings. Expect to spend more time in dialog with them.
- Reader – give this person more background reading. Expect them to read your emails closely.
Active Learning Style
You should be actively managing the growth of each of your directs. Use their innate active learning style to guide you. For example, suppose you’re giving your direct a stretch assignment, and they’ll be working outside their comfort zone. You’ll be checking in with them twice a week to keep them on track and help them succeed. In each case, you’ll get status updates and any open questions. How should you structure that check-in depending on the individual’s approach to learning?
- Writer – They should give you a brief written summary of status and their questions.
- Talker – They should give you a brief verbal update.
- Drawer – They should give you an infographic or concept sketch, or share a one-person Scrum board.
- Mover – You should go for a walk with them and talk about their status.
- Silent Thinker – You should ask them to pick one of the above approaches.
Communications style consists of two variables — Introversion vs Extroversion and focus on People vs Tasks. Popularized by William Moulton Marston as the DISC profile, this gives you a quick guide to some common themes you’ll see in your direct reports. I call them the Dominant (task-focused extrovert), the Influencer (people-focused extrovert), the Steady (people-focused introvert) and the Compliant (task-focused introvert). Pay attention to the default style, and the style under stress, of each of your directs.
Never manage a person based on their generation — it’s absurd, impersonal, and demeaning. Manage each person as a unique human being, whose career you are privileged to influence for the better.
Featured photo credit: VIKTOR HANACEK via picjumbo.com