One of the most effective ways to help your young employees (and employees of any age), says Bruce Tulgan, is to schedule regular discussions with each of them about their work.

Getting Top Performance from Millennial Employees

Oct. 13, 2016
Millennials want strong, highly-engaged managers who establish clear structure and boundaries and provide regular guidance, direction, support and coaching. Here are some keys ways to do that.

My company, RainmakerThinking, has been tracking the great millennial cohort (1978-2000) since the late 1990s, and in recent years we’ve been highly focused on the second-wave millennials (born 1990-2000) who are now entering the workforce in waves. Our research shows: Millennials are NOT a bunch of delicate, lazy, disrespectful, inappropriate slackers with short attention spans.

Millennials want leaders who take them seriously at work and set them up for success in the real world, not leaders who try to humor them. They want strong, highly-engaged managers who establish clear structure and boundaries and provide regular guidance, direction, support and coaching. Millennials need clear expectations, and they need to understand the quid-pro-quo of work every step of the way.

Yes, of course, millennials want more money, more flexibility, more training, more interesting projects and more exposure to decision-makers. But they don’t expect any of it on a silver platter. They want to know, every step of the way, “Exactly what do I need to do to earn that?!”

How can managers prepare for the highly-engaged leadership and coaching necessary for such dynamic management relationships?

These are some of the keys we teach leaders and managers every day:

Give Millennials the Gift of Context

Giving millennials the gift of context means explaining that no matter who that millennial may be, what he wants to achieve, or how he wants to behave, his role in any situation is determined in large part by factors that have nothing to do with him. There are preexisting, independent factors that would be present even if he were not, and they determine the context of any situation. Sometimes it is difficult for millennials in particular to be sensitive to more subtle contexts, particularly when they walk into new situations. Understanding context is about understanding where one fits in the larger picture.

We teach millennials to use a simple brainstorming tool in order to situate themselves in a new context, and you can use it to teach your millennials. We tell them that before they can figure out where they fit in an organization, they need to get a handle on the other pieces of the puzzle. We ask them to think and respond to the following questions:

  • Where am I? What is this place?
  • What is going on here? What is the mission of the group?
  • Why is everybody here? What is at stake for the group and for each person in the group?
  • When did they all get here?
  • Who are all these people? What role does each person play?
  • How are they accustomed to doing things around here? What is standard operating procedure?
  • Why am I here?
  • What is at stake for me?
  • When did I get here?
  • What is my appropriate role in relation to the other people in the group?
  • What is my appropriate role in relation to the mission? Who am I in this context?

Teach Millennials How to Manage Themselves

Millennials are often amazingly advanced in their knowledge and skills at a very young age, yet they often lack maturity when it comes to the old-fashioned basics of professionalism, critical thinking, and followership. So, teach them to fill those gaps:

  • Teach them professionalism: The basics of rigorous self-evaluation, personal responsibility, good work habits, good attitude, and interpersonal skills.
  • Teach them critical thinking: The basics of deep-dive proactive learning (instead of reactive), problem-solving, and decision-making.
  • Teach them followership: The basics of being a good citizen, adopting a service mindset, and practicing good teamwork.

Establish a Regular Routine for One-on-One Meetings

One of the most effective ways to help your young employees (and employees of any age) is to schedule regular discussions with each of them about their work. At first, err on the side of meeting more often with each person—every day, every other day, or once a week.

Like everything else, this dynamic process will change over time, and your approach will have to change with each young employee you meet with regularly. For each of your employees, you’ll have to figure out how often to meet, how much time to spend at each meeting, what format to use and what topics to cover. And remember: you’ll have to make adjustments over time. If things are not going well with a particular millennial, maybe you’ll have to meet longer and more often. And if things are going really well with a millennial, maybe you only need to meet twice a week. No matter how well things seem to be going, you still need to verify that things are indeed going as well as you think. If they are, make sure that millennial knows just how many points she is scoring today.

Never forget that your one-on-ones are your primary method for keeping the lines of communication open. Keep your expectations on the table, and make sure you are showing them exactly how to meet and exceed your expectations. And keep asking, “What do you need from me?”

Establish Clear Boundaries and Structure

Whenever you have a new task, responsibility, or project for one of your very capable young employees, always start by spelling out expectations. Make absolutely sure that person understands exactly what he is expected to do and how he is expected to do it. That’s the only way to get employees to adopt your organization’s best practices and turn them into standard operating procedures. As long as the assignment lasts, you should follow up regularly with one-on-one check-in conversations to review the employee’s progress. In those conversations, you should ask, “What have you already done? What steps did you follow? What step are you going to do next?” Listen carefully to their answers. Make it a habit to wrap up these conversations by deciding on a specific place and time for your next meeting to follow up.

Create an Upward Spiral of Continuous Improvement

Managers often tell me they have a hard time talking to millennials about failures great and small. “When they make a mistake, you hesitate to tell them because they take it so hard,” I was told by a partner at a prestigious law firm. “They seem to take it personally, like you are breaking their heart. I want to say, ‘Don’t feel bad. Just go back and make these changes, and then next time try to remember to do it properly in the first place.’ That seems pretty basic.” It is pretty basic.

When it comes to addressing Millennials’ performance problems, the most common mistake managers make is soft-pedaling honest feedback or withholding it altogether. Sometimes managers take back incomplete work and finish it themselves or reassign it. Other times the problems are not addressed at all, and the work product remains substandard. Millennials are left to fail unwittingly or improve on their own impulse and initiative. As one millennial put it, “What do you want me to do, scream it? Beg for it? Help! Help me get it right. Help me do it faster. Help me do it better. Help me improve.”

The second most common mistake managers make when dealing with millennials’ performance problems is hit-and-run criticism. Unlike soft-pedaling managers, hit-and-run managers don’t hesitate to offer honest negative comments about millennials’ performance. But hit-and-run managers often critique work randomly—when they happen to notice a mistake and also have a moment to reach out to the employee in question—instead of systematically reviewing work product. They are likely to disparage errors and omissions, even when they haven’t taken the time earlier to make expectations clear. Millennials usually feel blindsided. One millennial shared this story with me: “There was this one guy who would just attack me out of the blue. I wasn’t even working for him, really, but he was on the project. I’d see him in the cafeteria, and he would grab my upper arm and tell me something I did was crap: ‘Your presentation this morning was crap.’ ‘That e-mail you sent around this morning was crap.’ I hated that guy.”

When it comes to performance management with millennials, the best practice is to be systematic, honest and positive. That’s how you create an upward spiral of continuous improvement.

Negotiate Rewards in Small Increments

When that millennial knocks on your office door and asks if you have a minute to discuss his special need or want, you could roll your eyes and think about beating your head against the wall—or you could realize that this need or want might just be the key to driving this employee’s performance to a whole new level, or at least the key to getting more work out of him better and faster for the short term. The best approach is to negotiate these special rewards in very small increments. You want to be able to say, “Okay. I’ll do that for you tomorrow if you do X for me today.” Work a particularly undesirable shift? Work longer hours? Work with a difficult team? Do some heavy lifting? Work in some out of the way location? Clean up some unpleasant mess? Then deliver the reward in question as soon as you possibly can. Immediate rewards are much more effective with millennials because they provide a greater sense of control and a higher level of reinforcement. Plus, they won’t spend time wondering if their performance has been noted and appreciated, and they will therefore be less likely to lose the momentum generated by their short-term success.

Does this approach mean that, when it comes to millennials, everything must be open to negotiation? No! You should be rock solid on your basic standards and requirements. What is not negotiable? What is essential? What is not acceptable? That’s your starting point. From there, take control of the ongoing negotiation and drive millennials’ engagement, performance and retention by helping them earn those special rewards they want so much – one day at a time. In the process, you’ll get so much more, and better, and faster work out of them, one day at a time.

Bruce Tulgan is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. He is the author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016) and Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015). He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected], you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website

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