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How to Survive a Workplace Culture Clash With Millennials

A friend who supervises interns recently complained about a young man she gave an assignment to one morning. When she passed his desk a few hours later, he was surfing the Web. His explanation: assignment complete so he was taking a break. Argh!


A culture clash is erupting as millennials stampede into the workplace, arriving saddled with a negative reputation. But if boomers want to coexist with twentysomethings, then they - the older generation - need an attitude adjustment, says Lauren Stiller Rikleen, author of a new book, You Raised Us - Now Work With Us.

If the title seems in your face, it might not be surprising that a millennial suggested it. The attitude, however, goes to the central point of the book. We boomers raised our own children to be self-confident, ambitious and assertive; yet when their contemporaries come to the workplace, we too often see only the flip side of those attributes: overconfidence, entitlement and narcissism.

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Take the seemingly constant need for feedback. Boomers question why millennials seem anxious to know how they are doing.  Rikleen explains, "They grew up accustomed to adults - parents, coaches and teachers - who provided guidance and caring feedback, and now they expect other adults, called supervisors, to do the same."

The generational disconnect comes from different perceptions. Boomers assume that if they are not giving feedback then it's understood there's no need; employees are supposed to perform at a certain level. But millennials interpret no feedback as just the opposite - a negative - a spin on, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." Perhaps we should blame the soccer trophies that in effect rewarded them just for showing up. That was a form of feedback!

Both generations could use an attitude adjustment, Rikleen suggests. If boomers want to retain and groom millennial workers, then they need to start giving feedback on a regular basis, not just once-a-year performance reviews. And millennials need to learn to take constructive criticism, not just praise.

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So what should have that friend done with the intern? Rikleen notes that a management strength of boomers is their ability to "figure things out and navigate ambiguity." Not so with millennials, who will benefit from a clear conversation about expectations. That intern needed to be told that when he finished one assignment, he was to see the boss to get another one. Problem solved.


Mary W. Quigley's blog, Mothering21, tackles parenting of emerging adults and beyond.

Cartoon: Lokfung/istockphoto


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