Learning to manage your millennial employees

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

There is a lot of material out there that “tells us how it is” with generational differences. Thank goodness, because without this information we wouldn’t know how to manage.

I was talking to a client. He has a couple of folks on his executive team in their mid-30s and they seem to him to be good people — but not necessarily the same as the rest of the team.

You guessed it: The rest of the team is made up of, shall we say, more mature individuals. My client is fascinated and to some degree troubled/puzzled by the differences he sees, so much so that he saw fit to send me several articles today written specifically on the topic of managing the millennial workforce.

From my perspective, as someone who has been consulting for over 25 years and in the workforce for over 35 years, there are pluses and minuses to gaining a familiarity with information of this nature.

On one hand, the plus, it is helpful to recognize that each generation in the workforce shares some similarities and many differences. However, to view the differences as problems to be solved is where the minus aspect comes in. The real problem may be the way we predominantly insist on managing.

To a large degree, whether we like admitting it, our organizations and our management thinking are still dominated by “command and control” styles of management.

I think it might be time we start calling this “lazy management”, meaning that as managers we’d really rather not have to manage, we’d prefer to preside.

Presiding would be a lot simpler than managing, but the primary problem with this perspective is that the times have changed, not just the people. Presiding, commanding, whatever you might like to call it was an acceptable management style post WWII in America when capital was king, production was predictable and competition was at minimum levels.

Unless you were around for the Great Depression and then WWII, it is probably hard to imagine how happy people were with an extended period of economic stability and growth, so happy they focused primarily on the security of the employment available.

That stability became very unsettled in the mid-1980s with the rise of global competition and the explosion of digital technology. So what have followed are not merely generational differences, but tremendous circumstantial differences as well.

I think to focus solely on the generational differences allows us to miss the fact that the circumstances are dramatically different than they were even 10 years ago. Hopefully those details are pretty evident to all of us.

Let’s stop focusing on the issue of solving intergenerational differences, which is mostly code language for “how can we get them to be like us, so we don’t have to change?”

Instead, what if we began asking ourselves why it is taking us so long to evolve our management practices.

Command and control, or “lazy management” as I am now coining it, is not only clearly out of date; it is also a major contributor to employee disengagement and organizational inefficiency.

Isn’t the issue for managers how best to get the results produced with the human resources available now?

Here’s the biggest difference I can see with the human resources available today: Generation X and millennials are less motivated by fear than the baby boomers, and millennials are way less motivated by fear than either of the previous two generations.

What I’d like to know is why the baby boomers are not celebrating millennials — we raised them to not be afraid, and now we complain because they do not respond to our lazy management.

“Be careful what you pray for” is probably a statement apropos of the current situation.

My recommendation to all managers is to commit yourself to learning how to manage the workforce available to you now, which means getting to know your reports as individuals.

Note: A version of this column was published previously on BBJToday.com in 2012. 

Mike Cook ‘s columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He facilitates a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at mike.cook@vistagechair.com. He recently published ‘Thriving in the Middle: Why Managers Need to Be Coaching Each Other



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