10 Ways to Communicate with Millennials

On a recent flight, my seatmate and I began to talk about communication and conversation strategies for dealing with difficult people. Then out of the blue, my neighbor announced: “Boy, these millennials are hard to work with!”

I learned that she was a cellular phone store manager who had experienced a number of challenges with younger workers. After she made the above statement, I asked her, “What makes dealing with this particular group so difficult for you?” She responded, “They mostly do the bare minimum to get by. They don’t want to follow the rules. They always think that everything they do is the better way. After warnings and counseling, they’ll change their behavior only long enough to keep their job.” She also shared that when she tried to talk to them, they usually responded to her by saying, “That’s a stupid way of doing things,” or “You’re picking on me and my ideas again.”

She also shared that her company had recently surveyed their employees and had found that these workers believed managers like her didn’t care about them and didn’t treat them fairly or equally. Based on company’s survey feedback she had begun to document everything she said and did for fear of retribution.

This manager felt frustrated—and hopeless. And she’s not alone. Many older managers are frustrated because they do not understand how to communicate and motivate younger employees. When I pressed this manager, she eventually admitted that she had one or two problem workers and that the generalization she made to millennials in general was unfair.

Although my new-found acquaintance was guilty of making some overly broad generalizations about this particular age group, there is real value in learning how to lead and work with millennials. It is more than important—it’s critical. They’re one of the largest generations in history and, therefore, have a lot of power. And in the next few years, they are poised to reshape the economy and transform the way we do business.

In reflecting on my interaction with the store manager, I identified ten ways to successfully communicate with millennials to set them—and your organization—up for success.

1.     Take the time to connect. This is especially important when younger workers are first hired. Spend time with them and get to know them on a personal level in order to build a relationship. Learn who they are, what they’re about, what their strengths are, what they want to accomplish, and how you can help them. Communicate in a respectful manner so they will feel free to ask you questions and solicit your support.

2.     Ask for their opinions. Millennials like to feel that they add value and their views and contributions matter. Look for opportunities to ask them what they think on matters both personal and professional. Making the effort to understand their perspective will not only further improve your relationship, but it will also help you to understand the way they think and experience the world. This will help you to manage them and insure that you are understood. 

3.     Provide feedback. This generational group likes to know when they’re doing well and when they need to make improvements—on the spot. You should never wait to provide them with feedback. They are usually very open to receiving information that will help them to meet your expectations and to improve their performance. Be sure to explain why something has to be done in a certain way.

4.     Solicit their feedback. Millennials also like to provide feedback, so take the opportunity to ask them what you can do help them or to improve the way you manage or interact with them. Listen for their response and ask for specific examples or solutions if their suggestions are vague or general.

5.     Give recognition. Everyone likes to be recognized when they have done a good job. Younger workers are no different. They like to be recognized for a job well-done. Make a deliberate effort to notice their performance and make specific mention of their behavior and the positive results that they have achieved. Noticing when they are doing the right things and then reinforcing their behavior will increase the likelihood that they will repeat those desired behaviors.  

6.     Offer rewards. My inflight companion said that she felt like motivation was often higher when she took the time to discover what her young group of workers valued. She found that offering incentives such as free lunches, gift cards, or discounts on company merchandise were highly valued. Other managers who employ a large number of millennials have shared the same thing. Providing such perks create an interesting work atmosphere while communicating that you are interested in providing value for those that work for you.  

7.     Clarify expectations. Don’t assume that what is logical to you may be obvious to others. Another manager recently told me that one of his younger employees missed an important deadline. When he confronted this person about why she missed the deadline, she responded by saying, “Well, you didn’t give me what I needed to finish the work.” She didn’t understand that she needed to tell her manager that she was waiting on something that she needed to finish the work. Think through a project, and then be as clear and specific about your expectations for performance when communicating with younger employees. Also let them know that if they need more information or have questions, that they can come to you for clarification.

8.     Provide collaborative opportunities. Keep in mind this is the “social media” generation. They like to work and interact with others, particularly if doing so provides career and growth opportunities. Leverage this socializing bias by looking and creating opportunities for collaboration and teamwork.

9.     Communicate with respect. Sometimes when things go awry, it is easy to lose emotional control. Don’t let your negative feelings get the best of you. Take a deep breath and then provide examples of what you do and don’t want. Help them understand the appropriate way of doing things and share the consequences that naturally follow when processes or protocols are not followed. Take the time to understand their rationale for doing things the way they do and then involve them in any kind of problem-solving process to create a change in their performance.  

10. Set boundaries. Although I may have alluded to this point previously, let me be direct. Millennials need clear and specific guidelines. I recently asked a millennial that is my neighbor how his job was going, and he told me that he was recently fired. When I asked him what had happened, he told me that he became sick and just didn’t go to work. When I asked him why he didn’t call in, he simply responded that he was sick and couldn’t go in to work. Tell it to them straight what is expected or not expected, what is appropriate or not appropriate. Don’t assume they will behave the way you expect them to just because you would behave in a certain way.  

While the cell phone store manager was frustrated with her younger employees and made some generalizations about them, it is important for us to understand the generational differences that exist within our workforce. Being able to understand the individual is the key for any leader who desires to unlock the potential of each employee, regardless of their generation. If you will treat people with respect and take the time to communicate and understand them, you will create the kind of results that you desire along with fostering a productive and innovative atmosphere.

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Emily G. | May 11, 2017 | REPLY
I was born in 1985 and I do NOT consider myself a millennial. I find these tips to be ridiculous. I literally use the tactics with my children aged 7 and 11. It seems that the Millennial Generation was not taught anything about how to function in the real world or have a solid work ethic. Thank goodness my father taught me those things and I am not an airhead.
John Stoker | May 11, 2017 | REPLY
I totally agree with you that you can't stereotype one generational group. We have to consider each individual. Sounds like you were raised by someone who had real integrity and values that he taught to you. In general, some of the things that I wrote about will help with leaders who are struggling in their dealings with this younger generation. In short, you want to find ways to understand and help motivate those who may not have had the same upbringing or values that we do. Thanks for your comment.
Emily G. | May 11, 2017 | REPLY
That is a great point about different upbringings. Changes in the public school system have probably contributed to the group dynamic. While we all have different family backgrounds, we may have more similar primary education experiences. Perhaps the public education system could return to emphasizing responsibility, accountability and work-place expectations. And you are right, treating everyone with respect is the most important skill.
John Stoker | May 11, 2017 | REPLY
Emily G, Totally agree with you. We need to teach more accountability and responsibility to our children. I have an 8-year old, 13-year old, and a 16-year old that we are trying to teach those principles. It is not easy because the schools are not teaching it, so naturally my wife and I are the bad guys. Thanks for your responses!! j
Sue | May 11, 2017 | REPLY
This article really brings home something we in management tend to forget in the hustle and bustle of getting the job done. Connecting with people, communicating and listening, is critical to building healthy, productive work relationships. In this respect, Millennials are no different than any other employee. We are all individuals with different skill sets and needs when it comes to recognition, feedback, and communication. Treat employees with respect, get to know them, and be inclusive. That results in a win-win-win -- for employees, for management, and for the company.
John Stoker | May 11, 2017 | REPLY
Sue, I couldn't have said it any better myself. Excellent, excellent points. I think sometimes we all tend to become frustrated with people who are not like us, whether they are younger or not. What we must remember is to treat everyone with respect and dignity. We must also remember not to stereotype people just because they are in a certain generation. Thanks again for your wonderful post. j