Treat millennial employees as individuals, not generational stereotypes

By Mike Cook
Management Developer 

Holy Cats! 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.

Imagine, having to go to the trouble of getting to know each of your employees as who they are individually?

My goodness that could take a lot of time, and it might just be wasted given the fact that you know those “X-ers” and “Y-ers” jump around from one job to another at the drop of a hat.

I was talking to a client on day, which got me started down this path. He has a couple of folks on his executive team in their mid-30s, and they seem to him tobe “good people,” but not necessarily the same as the rest of the team. And 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 and puzzled, by the differences he sees. So much so that he saw fit to send me several articles on the topic of managing the millennial workforce.

"Commit yourself to learning how to manage the workforce available to you now, which means getting to know your reports as individuals." -Mike Cook

The articles he sent me were titled: “Millennial Tension: The Generation-Y Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”; “Gen Y, Gen X and the Baby Boomers: Workplace Generation Wars”; “Generation X: Stepping Up to the Leadership Plate.”

If you take the time to read any of them you’ll notice they are not exactly recent but you’ll probably find very much the same perspective shared in articles or blogs of a more current vintage. As someone who has been consulting for more than 25 years and has been in the workforce for more than 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 are still dominated by “command and control” styles of management. I think it might be time we start calling this “lazy management,” meaning as managers we’d really rather not have to manage—we’d prefer to preside. OK, I get this, 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. I suppose I could take time to explain why that style worked, but I won’t. 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.

Most of us can recall that the 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 circumstances are dramatically different than they were even 15 years ago. And hopefully those details are pretty evident to all of us.

Rather than focus on the issue of solving the intergenerational differences—which is mostly code language for, “How can we get them to be like us so we don’t have to change?”—what if we began asking 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 results produced with the human resources available now?

Here’s the biggest difference I can see with the human resources available today: Generation X is less motivated by fear than the Baby Boomers, and Generation Y is way less motivated by fear than either of the previous two generations. What I would like to know is why the Baby Boomers are not celebrating Generation Y. 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.

You will find that you have more to learn than they do and also that the attention you provide will begin to demonstrate that you do care about them as people which is a number one priority for many of them.

Now, I do have one generational question I have not been able to answer: What’s up with Lindsay Lohan?

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at

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