Working with Millennials

April 17, 2014
by Joanie Connell

Although today’s democratic, supportive style of parenting has several advantages, organizational leaders are finding that young adults may not be as prepared to handle the challenges of the “real world” of work as were previous generations.  When children are told that “everyone’s a winner” and their parents come to their rescue when they are about to make a mistake, they may not grow up to have the resilience to cope with obstacles or the tenacity to keep trying at their jobs until they get it right.  When children are repeatedly told how special they are, they grow up to have an unrealistic sense of entitlement to workplace perks, such as promotions, raises, and engaging assignments, without working for them.  As leaders of evolving organizations, how do we cultivate these budding employees to succeed in the Darwinian world of work? 

While the emergent workforce was brought up largely by today’s leaders, young employees are finding these very parental figures to be completely at odds with them at work.  Why did their parents teach them that there are enough “musical chairs” for everyone when, clearly, there would not be enough jobs to go around?  Why did their parents tell them how special they were when there would be 200 other people just like them applying for the same job?  How could these seasoned organizational professionals prepare their children so inadequately for the ruthless world of work? 

It’s not that the Millennials are ill prepared, by any means.  They have been working on their resumes since they were in kindergarten.  Their parents have poured more resources into their children than ever before in history—for private lessons, coaches, enrichment classes, sports camps, and so on.  In fact, today’s emerging workforce is probably the most over prepared under prepared generation of workers ever.  They have studied so much so fast but have experienced so little.  They have been coached along to become experts in multiple domains, but they have not had a moment to themselves to reflect on what they value or to make their own decisions.  They have not been allowed to learn from their mistakes, to hurt, to fail.  They have been raised to be perfect every time—and even that’s not good enough because today’s GPAs go above a 4.0.

Fast forward to a Millennial’s first performance review.  How many managers do you know who give above “perfect” for performance?  Is it even possible?  How many managers even give a perfect rating at all?  More typically, an employee will get some feedback on where they could improve, even if they are doing a pretty good job.  Now enter the Millennial receiving the less-than-perfect rating and the feedback on where they could improve.  You wouldn’t believe how many managers complain about their employees crying during performance reviews and arguing with the feedback.  If it hasn’t happened to you, just wait.  Some managers have even received phone calls from parents of their employees demanding a re-evaluation.  This is no joke.  It is really happening out there and it is becoming a problem. 

The problem is twofold.  First, the managers are finding the employees to be too “high maintenance.”  Second, the employees are finding their jobs to be—well—too much work!  So they quit.  Mommy and Daddy come to the rescue and let them move back in (unless they haven’t left yet to begin with) and support them.  Both the parents and the children think that they are too good to be taking on lowly jobs that have too much grunt work.  The parents have spent fortunes on educating their children and the children have poured their lives into learning and internshipping so that they can have high profile, high paying, highly satisfying jobs.  Only education and 2-week-long internships don’t prepare a person for taking on high levels of responsibility at a company.  Experience does.  And the way to get experience is to work and put up with the drudgery and learn from it.

So, what is the solution?  The best solution is to start young and let kids earn praise, learn from their mistakes, and think for themselves.  What if they’ve already grown?  It’s not too late.  Managers and corporate trainers can work with young employees to help them build resilience, independence, and humility.  It’s harder the longer you wait, but it is never too late to learn “lessons from the workplace.”

“Lessons from the Workplace: What Parents and Schools Are Missing” is an upcoming book that gives leadership lessons from the school of “hard knocks” to better prepare people for the “real world” of work.  It raises difficult questions for all ages—leaders, parents, and emerging workers.  It covers the challenges that we are all faced with because of the parenting shifts in our society.  It also offers solutions to these challenges for readers to bring back to work and home and implement immediately for increased success.

Update: Dr. Joanie B Connell's book "Flying without a Helicopter: How to Prepare Young People for Work and Life" is now available. Dr. Connell is also an instructor for the Center of Executive Education (CED) at the Rady School of Management. Visit CED's website for information or to sign up for her upcoming program on Leadership Assessment.