The room had people of all ages and the youngest in the crowd all sat at the tables near the front of the stage. Four comics were on the line-up that evening and what I observed was that each one had a few minutes in their routine where they made fun of the Millennials in the audience. You know the typical stuff:
- We had rotary phones; Millennials text.
- We only got trophies by being on championship teams; Millennials get them just by showing up.
- We walked or took to the bus wherever we had to go; Millennials get chauffeured everywhere by their parents.
You get the idea. It went on and on. The jokes were so predictable that they got boring. Sure some of them garnered a chuckle, but as each comic treaded the same ground I could see fewer and fewer people laughing. In fact, the younger people at the front tables became visibly perturbed.
As I reflected on that evening, I once again saw the immediate parallels to my work life.
I’ve been in many meetings with clients or in sessions with leaders where at some point the subject of Millennials comes up. Just like those comedians, the commentary is built on the same tired, old stereotypes and clichés.
I’m personally getting bored of those discussions. More importantly, so are the Millennials. Many of the younger members on my team have put it bluntly – they are weary of the Millennial bashing going in our workplaces.
I wanted to understand this issue further, so I reached out to Dan Schawbel, a career and workplace expert, and a New York Times bestselling author and speaker. He’s also the Partner and Research Director at Future Workplace and has personally conducted research and written extensively about Millennials in the workplace.
Schawbel confirmed that Millennial bashing was everywhere. “Every single presentation I give starts out with me going over all of these stereotypes and then revealing new research that tells the real story about stereotypes between generations.”
Schawbel and his team have found that every generation – Gen Z, X, Y or even Baby Boomers – negatively stereotype younger generations, while positively stereotyping the older generations. “This happens because older generations don’t understand the behavior and capacity of younger generations, which creates fear and disdain,” he said. “Older generations always refer to younger generations as narcissistic, unfocused, lazy and entitled.”
However, Schawbel said that today, social media has amplified the stereotypes profoundly. “The media in general keeps writing negative articles about Millennials because it generates page views – therefore becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Negative stereotypes aside, it’s important to remember that there are important differences between the generations that require leaders to make adjustments.
For example, Millennials put a very high price on the opportunity to work with great leaders. And if they find themselves suffering under a bad leader, they are way more likely to just leave and go to another organization. In contrast, it’s been my observation that Baby Boomers are prepared to put up with bad leadership for years. Boomers somehow learned to endure bad leadership; Millennials see no reason to stay.
How can we avoid bringing these stereotypes into the workplace? Obviously, demanding better and more accountable leadership is key. However, Schawbel suggested five critical insights for leaders to recognize and defuse these preconceptions:
- Check Your Own Biases. Take a hard look at yourself and try to determine if you are inadvertently participating in Millennial bashing. “In the end it’s about respecting all people of all age groups before placing judgement on them.”
- Engage Millennials. It’s important that leaders involve millennials in business meetings and where possible, give them exposure to executives. This will make them feel like they are truly part of the organization, which will help them derive real meaning from their work.
- Be Transparent. Schawbel stressed that Millennials crave transparency. That means sharing details about what’s really going on in the company. “Millennials want to work for honest leaders with a lot of integrity.”
- Give Continuous Feedback. Millennials have a huge appetite for information about how they are performing and the traditional annual performance review just doesn’t cut it for them. In fact, it really doesn’t cut it for most people, regardless of the generation they belong to.
- Provide Leadership Opportunities. Schawbel’s research found the majority of Millennials do in fact want to be leaders, but are frustrated because they don’t see a clear path to those roles. Or, once in a leadership role, they feel they don’t get enough training to be successful. And Millennials have a progressive, modern mindset when it comes to leadership. “They want to be part of teams that accomplish goals together and use collaborative technology to do so.”
Great leaders know how to tap into the energy, commitment and intelligence of all their employees, regardless of the generation they belong to.
This week’s gut check question asks: are you a Millennial basher?
The second edition of The Leadership Contract is now available in hardcover and a Kindle edition