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3 Tips for Managing Millennial Expectations

 |  By Lena J. Weiner  
   December 01, 2014

Some Millennials have overly high expectations early in their careers: Ideal schedules, fawning from colleagues, frequent promotions. Keeping their expectations in check is essential for all concerned.

A nurse manager caught the potentially fatal error in just the nick of time. A young nurse had almost administered the wrong medication to a patient via IV. The manager pulled the young worker aside and emphatically told her that this is how patients die unnecessarily.

But the young nurse interrupted her.

"Actually, you are doing this conversation wrong," she corrected her boss. "You are supposed to give me some positive feedback before you criticize my work."

This is just one of many stories from exasperated managers and HR departments that Bruce Tulgan, founder and chairman of human resources consultancy RainmakerThinking and author of Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y has heard regarding what to some is baffling behavior from the youngest generation of workers.

By 2020, post-Baby Boom [born 1946 – 1964] workers will make up 80% of the workforce. Already managers have complaints about overly confident young employees with poor social skills and a hard time taking criticism who expect praise and rewards in abundance.

Some of these issues have their roots in the cultural attitudes of the 1980s and 90s marked by helicopter parenting, everyone-plays/everyone wins sports teams, summer camps designed to bring out hidden talents, and school schedules constructed to maximize the chances of snagging a coveted spot at a dream college.


The resulting overly structured and sheltered existence is theorized to stifle the development of social skills, independent thinking, and time management skills.

But regardless of where Millennials [born between 1981 and 2000] have been, employers need to start taking steps to get them where they need to go—whether that be in the operating room, a patient's bedside, or eventually the C-suite.

Tulgan offers three recommendations for laying down the workplace law and managing expectations for incoming Millennials.

1. Make Expectations Clear From the Start
Sometimes, managers get so excited when they meet a candidate who seems like a good match that they forget to tell them the drawbacks of the job. That's a huge mistake, says Tulgan.

"Give them a realistic preview. Try to sell them, then try to scare them away and see who sticks. Let them know in advance what this job look like, not just at best, but on a bad day as well. Give a preview of harder aspects of job."

Tell them about high turnover rates, that they will likely have to work nights for their first couple years, or that the manager of their prospective department went three years without a raise and seven years before being promoted. Make sure they can never say you didn't warn them.


But it doesn't stop there. Use orientation and the onboarding process to establish ground rules. Along with basic performance standards, explain how people are expected to interact in your organization, who the managers are, where they will work, how shifts are decided, their assignments and responsibilities. "You cannot assume your Millennial employees [intuitively] know these things," says Tulgan.

If you find something your Millennial does unacceptable, whether it's showing up late, spending too much time staring at their phone, or being overly informal, it's vital to make it clear early on what your expectations are—and the consequences for continuing such behavior.

2. Think Short-Term Employment
Once upon a time, employees went to work for a company a few months after leaving school and stayed there until it was time to retire.

Those days are long over—but, unlike Boomers or even Generation Xers [born 1965-1980], Millennials don't remember a time when this was the norm.

While most Boomers or Traditionalists [born 1945 or earlier] would instinctively think they should 'keep their heads down and pay their dues' early in their career, a Millennial doesn't think that way. "That view is so old fashioned. It depends on having confidence in the system to take care of you," says Tulgan.


Millennials think of employment as a short-term transaction. They aren't planning to work for you for 30 years; they plan to work for you until the job gets stale and they're ready to move on.

This generation doesn't have delayed gratification down yet—if they ever will (ever watch a Millennial patiently wait for a YouTube video to load? Yeah, me neither). "Young people don't think of long term rewards—they're taking life one day at a time," says Tulgan.

The solution: Have managers check in with young reports every week, possibly every day, about what their expectations are. What do you want from them today? This week? This month? Try to be tolerant of any youthful mistakes young employees make early on, but explain to them why their idea or proposed plan isn't going to work. And, if they want to be promoted, tell them why they aren't getting it now, and what they need to do to get the job they want.

3. Take a Reality Check
Kids today! They're slackers who are only out for themselves. Wait. That's a stereotype about Generation X.

Let's try again: Overly idealistic flower children who spent their youth rebelling against the status quo and never understood what their parents' generation sacrificed for them to have the lifestyle they have come to enjoy. Wait. Those are stereotypical Baby Boomers (or at least it was, before that generation matured and became the career-centric team players and mentors we know them as today).


Older generations have been weeping for the future since Socrates' time, and every generation has had to contend with negative stereotypes as it's come of age. When asked how much of the perceived issues with Millennials are just issues young people always have, Tulgan says he believes it's "about fifty-fifty. Half of the problem is just being young."

If most of us think back to the early part of our careers, we can probably remember a few faux pas we've made along the way, like thinking we had mastered a skill we really didn't, dress code flops or getting caught red-handed playing hooky from work.

It takes time to learn professional etiquette, develop a work ethic, and learn effective time management skills. Be realistic when passing judgment on the young'uns—are all newly minted college grads really that lazy and entitled, or are you forgetting what it's like to be 22?

A firm touch can go a long way. As for the nurse manager I mentioned at the beginning of this column, she gave her young employee the only positive feedback she could muster given the circumstances.

"Nice shoes. Now, about that IV bag…"


Lena J. Weiner is an associate editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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