Working with millennials

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Working with millennials

By Kim Jong-nam

One of the topics that corporations are most interested in educating their managers about is how to create a corporate culture in which millennials can work effectively with the older generation, since the lack of understanding between these two groups causes a breakdown in communication and collaboration.

There are already various approaches and methods, most of which tend to imply that this is a generation of "monsters" at worst and "problem children" at best. I would like, here, to suggest, however, that millennials have been deeply misunderstood.

Recently, I asked 400 training attendees, who were all millennials, what was most unsatisfactory about their older team leaders and the older generation in general. They gave the following kinds of answers: team leaders are overpaid for the work that they do, they justify irrational behavior by claiming that their team is like a "family," they micromanage their employees, they don't create opportunities for open communication, they take excessive interest in their employees' personal lives, they favor employees who will drink with them over those who are performing better at work.

Taken as a whole, these responses show that millennials seem to be different from the older generation in terms of how much they value their independence, how much they value their personal lives over their corporate lives, and how they feel they should be treated objectively (rather than subjectively, at the whim of the team leader). They want their privacy to be protected; they want to express their opinions in a culture of open discussion; they want everyone at the organization, regardless of rank, to treat each other with consideration; they want free communication.

When I asked them what specific behaviors of older team leaders they could not understand, they said: creating an unpleasant atmosphere due to their own loss of emotional control, being openly rude, forcing their employees to go to get-togethers after work, praising their employees in the evening after they had criticized them in the morning, and other behaviors that they described as "psychotic." If we look at these behaviors, we can see that millennials are not, in fact, expecting too much from the older generation ― these expectations are actually fairly reasonable.

The answer to the "millennial problem" is thus easier than we think: their values are clear, and their dislikes are rational. Millennials want to be respected and cared for just as their team leaders do. The one truly notable break with previous generations is that millennials insist on being individually respected, and are therefore unwilling to submit entirely to corporate culture. It is this trait that drives the older generation crazy and causes them to resent millennials. However, as millennials have grown up in a different environment than did the older generation, and have been treated in different ways in their families and schools, it is only natural that they should have different values and mindsets about everything. How best, then, to deal with these differences?

The best way to do so is, in fact, to change. The older generation needs to stop with its aggressive/defensive behavior such as blindly opposing different ideas, trying to control subordinates, and not forgiving any mistakes. This behavior causes millennials to become disengaged. Instead, more positive behavior that makes leaders more effective are: setting challenging goals and working on them together, giving employees exciting work that will help them grow, encouraging and supporting them, and being sensitive to their needs.

All organisms change. If an organization is like an organism ― since it is born, grows, gets older and dies ― it, too, must follow the laws of change. Organizations that do not change will die sooner. This is (metaphorically) true for people as well: in order for someone to survive in an organization, they must be able to change when necessary. Understanding what millennials want will make managing them easier and even pleasant. Ensuring that all generations can co-exist is the key to successful leadership.


Kim Jong-nam is the founding CEO of META (www.imeta.co.kr) and the author of two books, "Organizations without Meetings" and "Breaking the Silent Rules."


By Kim Jong-nam

One of the topics that corporations are most interested in educating their managers about is how to create a corporate culture in which millennials can work effectively with the older generation, since the lack of understanding between these two groups causes a breakdown in communication and collaboration.

There are already various approaches and methods, most of which tend to imply that this is a generation of "monsters" at worst and "problem children" at best. I would like, here, to suggest, however, that millennials have been deeply misunderstood.

Recently, I asked 400 training attendees, who were all millennials, what was most unsatisfactory about their older team leaders and the older generation in general. They gave the following kinds of answers: team leaders are overpaid for the work that they do, they justify irrational behavior by claiming that their team is like a "family," they micromanage their employees, they don't create opportunities for open communication, they take excessive interest in their employees' personal lives, they favor employees who will drink with them over those who are performing better at work.

Taken as a whole, these responses show that millennials seem to be different from the older generation in terms of how much they value their independence, how much they value their personal lives over their corporate lives, and how they feel they should be treated objectively (rather than subjectively, at the whim of the team leader). They want their privacy to be protected; they want to express their opinions in a culture of open discussion; they want everyone at the organization, regardless of rank, to treat each other with consideration; they want free communication.

When I asked them what specific behaviors of older team leaders they could not understand, they said: creating an unpleasant atmosphere due to their own loss of emotional control, being openly rude, forcing their employees to go to get-togethers after work, praising their employees in the evening after they had criticized them in the morning, and other behaviors that they described as "psychotic." If we look at these behaviors, we can see that millennials are not, in fact, expecting too much from the older generation ― these expectations are actually fairly reasonable.

The answer to the "millennial problem" is thus easier than we think: their values are clear, and their dislikes are rational. Millennials want to be respected and cared for just as their team leaders do. The one truly notable break with previous generations is that millennials insist on being individually respected, and are therefore unwilling to submit entirely to corporate culture. It is this trait that drives the older generation crazy and causes them to resent millennials. However, as millennials have grown up in a different environment than did the older generation, and have been treated in different ways in their families and schools, it is only natural that they should have different values and mindsets about everything. How best, then, to deal with these differences?

The best way to do so is, in fact, to change. The older generation needs to stop with its aggressive/defensive behavior such as blindly opposing different ideas, trying to control subordinates, and not forgiving any mistakes. This behavior causes millennials to become disengaged. Instead, more positive behavior that makes leaders more effective are: setting challenging goals and working on them together, giving employees exciting work that will help them grow, encouraging and supporting them, and being sensitive to their needs.

All organisms change. If an organization is like an organism ― since it is born, grows, gets older and dies ― it, too, must follow the laws of change. Organizations that do not change will die sooner. This is (metaphorically) true for people as well: in order for someone to survive in an organization, they must be able to change when necessary. Understanding what millennials want will make managing them easier and even pleasant. Ensuring that all generations can co-exist is the key to successful leadership.


Kim Jong-nam is the founding CEO of META (www.imeta.co.kr) and the author of two books, "Organizations without Meetings" and "Breaking the Silent Rules."




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