Millennials - The new normal

September 2013   Comments

Q: As a new manager, I am finding the youngest generation of nurses difficult to engage. Other nurses (the older ones) are complaining to me that their younger colleagues don’t seem to know their place and, honestly, I have to agree. It’s leading to a real disconnect on my team, and I’m not sure what to do.

A: So many millennials (people born between 1980 and 2000) have moved into the workforce that you’ve no doubt learned, or at least noticed, a few things about the generation as a whole. Millennials, also called gen-Yers, are commonly labelled as entitled, narcissistic and selfish. You’ve probably noted that older staff have commented that the behaviour of millennials is confusing (at best) and even offensive.

However, you’ve also likely found their energy contagious and their optimism refreshing. They have an incredible ability to collaborate and to make use of technology — invaluable skills you want to take advantage of.

Of course, you are interested in having harmonious and productive relationships with all your staff, including those who belong to the millennial generation. But you likely have a bit of a love/hate relationship with this group. If that’s the case, I guarantee that the tension is putting your team, your organization and your career at risk.

Learning to work together

Am I exaggerating? Not at all. Although previous generations have always managed to find ways to work together and mentor, their relationships with millennials is not proceeding as smoothly. Here’s why: millennials have no intention of conforming to the norms of the workplace. In fact, they simply do not recognize the norms.

As baby boomers and gen-Xers entered the workforce, most eventually adapted to “the way things are done around here.” Millennials, however, are so large in number and believe so strongly in their own values and truths, they are demanding that the norms be adjusted to suit them.

Sure, it may be entertaining to commiserate with your colleagues about a particularly nervy millennial. But for the success of your team and your career, and especially for the sake of your clients, you’ve got to learn how to work with, manage and mentor millennials so they’ll be prepared to assume leadership positions.

While working on a master’s degree in leadership, I interviewed millennials and their managers. A conclusion of my thesis, which focused on how to retain millennial employees, was that manager-led discussions about communication, respect and work ethic and what these words mean would help ease workplace tensions.

An oversized generation gap

That being said, however, I think parenting styles and the incredible power of the Internet are at the root of an oversized generation gap between millennials and other generations.

Generational values and norms are built on collective life experiences. Let’s think about some of the differences in how the generations were raised. Most baby boomers had one parent at home full time who organized the household. With gen-Xers — the “latchkey kids” — both parents were in the workforce and were relatively uninvolved in their children’s lives. Millennials have had parents who would describe their approach to raising children as peerenting, a much more inclusive and cooperative style that encourages the input of offspring.

Baby boomers and gen-Xers have accepted the Internet and all it offers with varying degrees of enthusiasm. But consider the Internet from the perspective of millennials, who embrace it totally. They expect immediate and complete access to information as their right. They understand that one need only to self-market online to become famous and have fans — and perhaps be able to generate a huge income, to boot.

The youngest millennials have grown up in an age in which Twitter, Facebook and Instagram encourage them to participate in the lives of public figures and to start interactive “relationships” with people they don’t know. (It stands to reason they will want the same level of interaction with their boss or their organization’s CEO.)

My 15-year-old daughter recently asked to have a friend stay overnight. Not recognizing the friend’s name or her address, I started to ask questions. It turned out that the two met on Facebook three years ago, had developed a strong bond online and now wanted to spend time together. I allowed the sleepover to go ahead, despite feeling strongly that the situation was a little bit crazy. But it turns out that this is normal behaviour for my daughter’s generation. Trust is built at about the same speed as their Internet connection.

Millennials have something to say

Your millennial employees will probably be highly opinionated about how the organization could and should be run. In many cases, these opinions may be spot on, but they may not have been backed up with solid research of the kind you are accustomed to. These employees will really benefit from your knowledge and experience, allowing them to create and facilitate the fantastic changes they know they’re capable of and that you know your organization needs.

If you ignore millennials, because that seems like the easiest approach to you, they will walk away. And if your organization cannot attract and retain these employees, it is doomed to fail — it will only be a matter of time. Millennials do their best work in an environment that is collaborative, where they believe they can be themselves and are seen for who they really are, and where there is a social feel to interaction. They believe in shared leadership. As a manager, you’ll have to learn how to provide leadership and to share it with them, too.

Your role in bridging the generation gap in your workplace is to facilitate discussion and learning. If you don’t make the effort, your organization stands to lose out.

Three tips for managing millennials

1. Get to know them. Ask them about what’s going on at home, their weekend plans and their dreams. Show interest in their career path and get involved.

2. Turn suggestions into learning projects. Be open to discussion when they come to you to criticize how things are being run, but make sure you send them off to do some research on why things are the way they are. Solicit their feedback and insight into how to make improvements. They just might blow you away with some great ideas.

3. Lead conversations about workplace values and norms that will help everyone understand where each of the generations is coming from. Connection leads to better engagement, and this in turn translates into team productivity.

Maureen Towns, RN, BScN, MA

Maureen Towns, RN, BScN, MA, is a Calgary-based speaker, facilitator and consultant who helps others develop their inner leader.

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