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The Care and Feeding of the (Sometimes Annoying) Millennials

 |  By HealthLeaders Media Staff  
   October 07, 2009

Whatever you do, don't show this column to any of the millennials in your office. I'm going to share with you ten tips for communicating with the 20-somethings you work with (and your gen y, millennial, or generation next patients) that I learned at last week's SHSMD conference in Orlando. But millennials tend to get a little outraged if you try to define them. In fact, saying that they get a little outraged when you try to define them would definitely be cause for outrage.

If you want proof, check out today's MarketShare blog post by my colleague Marianne Aiello, one of my favorite millennials—who is a source of constant amusement to me. Let's just say she has a slightly different view of her generation than her older generation X and Boomer co-workers.

It's said that every generation thinks it is superior to the generations before and after them. Which means the youngest generation gets picked on a lot. I'll admit they are a fascinating and sometimes annoying mystery to me, which is why I attended the very aptly-named "I'll Take the Corner Office, Please: Tips for Communicating with Millennials" session.

I'm a Gen X-er on the cusp of being a Boomer (though I definitely identify with the younger generation—40 is the new 30, you know). So I knew right away that the session would be spot-on when the slide popped up that said one of the characteristics of generation X is that they are annoyed by millennials.

They're self-involved and entitled, yet insecure and easily distracted and bored. They're disloyal workers who play on the computer instead of doing their work. They're squeaky wheels who demand raises and promotions without paying their dues. They need constant praise and coddling. They see slights in every interaction. And they use funny acronyms that the rest of us don't understand and they don't get our jokes, either.

OK, so those are stereotypes, and I know they drive millennials crazy. And I know many millenials do not fit those descriptions. But stereotypes don't come out of nowhere.

Meanwhile, they're probably not going to change anytime soon. So, we old folks might as well learn to deal.

Session speakers Kim Blake and Deborah Myers, senior account executive and executive vice president, respectively, of CRT/tanaka in Norfolk, VA, shared the following tips for me and others who find the millennial generation to be a monumental challenge:

1. Be their Google. I like to put my head down, pull my socks up, and get my work done. When I don't know the answer, I usually try to figure it out on my own. And I hate to be micro-managed. Not so with millennials, Blake and Myers say. Having grown up in the information age, they want you to give them all of the information they need to succeed. Let them ask as many questions as they need to—even if it drives you a little crazy.

2. Give them a spoonful of sugar. Millennials also want instant feedback—they're used to being graded on every assignment. But if you plan to deliver criticism, you'd better include some positive feedback, too. It's so cliché, but this really is the generation whose shelves are lined with participation trophies.

3. Create meaningful experiences. Millennials are very civic-minded. As Marianne points out in her MarketShare post, at many schools volunteering is a requirement for graduation. Inviting them to join—or, better yet—create a program that gives them the opportunity to give back is a great motivator and helps them connect with an organization.

4. Consider short attention spans. They're smart and work fast but they are short-sighted and easily bored. So break their work into small projects—multiple deadlines mean more opportunities for that positive feedback, instant gratification, and sense of accomplishment they love so much.

5. Chat them up.This generation is all about social media. And social media is all about conversation. They're used to it and expect it in the workplace, Blake and Myers say. When they are part of the conversation they will be more engaged. Allow them to contribute and cultivate areas of expertise.

6. Mentor, don't manage. Just because you manage a millennial doesn't mean you have their respect, according to Blake and Myers. They respect experience, but don't want to hear "this is how I do it." Instead, you should couch your advice in terms of "this is what I've learned." The eye-rolling I get from my younger co-workers when I try to impart upon them my pearls of wisdom is ample proof that teaching millennials anything is a challenge. One way to overcome the challenge is reciprocal mentoring—they appreciate the opportunity to share their expertise.

7. Push their desks together. The current trend in education is group work—what we would have considered cheating in my day they now call cooperative learning. Fostering teamwork in the workplace and communicating team objectives in addition to individual performance expectations is an effective tactic, Blake and Myers say. Tell them how their performance effects and contributes to team success.

8. Teach them how to treat customers. Millennials are, without a doubt, a generation of consumers. And they expect to be treated like valued customers not only at the mall, but also in the workplace. Managers may have to teach them the skill of customer service—how to deliver it and who to consider a customer—from mangers to co-workers to vendors and suppliers to patients and their families. As noted previously, they don't automatically respect senior managers and won't automatically make the connection that managers are also customers who should be treated as such.

9. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. It might be time to stop being so uptight about social media at work. Millennials are using chat platforms and checking their Facebook and Twitter pages at work (whether they'll admit it or not). Blake and Myers suggest creating a social media code of participation, but you might as well take advantage of the fact that social media can be a useful tool—and that millennials can teach you how to use them to be more productive.

10. Be flexible, but don't baby them. At the top of this column, I said that millennials get outraged when we try to pigeonhole them—the whole debate about whether millenials need to be coddled is one of the most contentious. This is the one that interests me the most. Blake and Myers say to strike a balance: don't kowtow to them or change the way you run your hospital, but if you can stand to be more flexible, you may find it makes your millennials more productive.

Love to hear your thoughts—head on over to the MarketShare blog and leave a comment on Marianne's post, An Open Letter to the Millennial-Wary.

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