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Millennials Are Managing Up

millennialmanager750The time has come. Millennials are officially adults, sitting in the 21–36 age range. They’re establishing families and careers, and they’re entering leadership roles. To the surprise of baby boomers and Gen X, these tech-savvy goofballs could soon be their bosses, if they aren’t already. The eldest half of the millennial generation have about a decade of work experience and are already building their leadership experience, so there’s no better time to talk about effective communication for this new generation of leaders. After all, millennials will make up 75 percent of the global workforce by 2025, according to a report from BPW Foundation.

Millennial leadership is already happening, and it’s only going to expand. There simply aren’t enough Xers to fill the roles that boomers are vacating, so either roles will shift in the workplace or, more likely, millennials will fill the holes that boomers are leaving behind. As of 2016, 12 percent of millennials are department heads and 7 percent are on a senior management team, but the majority of millennials still don’t feel like their leadership skills are being developed, according to the Deloitte Millennial Survey 2016. These leaders have their own brand of managing, which means a whole new set of communication issues. My organization, BridgeWorks, has compiled a list of millennial leader traits and values that can help millennials and non-millennials understand where leadership trends are heading.

Traits of millennial leaders

  • Collaborative—democratic in decision making.
  • Tech-savvy—organize and lead via technological platforms.
  • Socially accepting—strongly value diversity and inclusion.
  • Disruptive—seek and reward constant change.

Values of millennial leaders

  • Customization—eager to individualize their approach.
  • Authenticity—have a tendency to be too informal.
  • Speed—prefer to work and lead fast, for better or worse.
  • Flexibility—motivated to give flexibility, but may find it’s harder to manage than previously thought.

There are more nuances to millennial leadership, so think of these lists as brief summaries. These traits and values connect to how millennials will shine and struggle as workplace leaders, and they can identify clashes in communication between millennial leaders and the generations they will manage. More and more baby boomers and Gen Xers are being managed by blossoming millennial leaders, so consider the inevitable communication challenges that will arise among them.

Millennials managing baby boomers

Both of these generations share an optimistic spirit and lean towards positivity, but the areas that might give leaders pause could be millennials’ lack of formality, preferred modes of communication, and reliance on technology.

Baby boomers
Baby Boomers grew up in a time when formality was a sign of respect. They had to compete with their many peers for jobs when they first entered the workforce, so they mastered formal workplace dress, processes, and meetings in an effort to stand out from the crowd. They established and perfected their work personas to optimize individual and company performance, and they learned it all without the assistance of today’s technologies. Experiences from their formative years led formality to become an integral component to Boomer workplace communication. Enter: Millennials, smartphones, and Wi-Fi.

Forget those pricey suits; Millennials want to swiftly work their way to the top in a witty graphic tee. They don’t see the necessity of formal dress, and they don’t thrive off competition like boomers. Instead, they prefer a relaxed, cohesive work environment that fosters positive relationships and experiences over prestige. This leads them to exercise informal dress and communication at work. They want to dress comfortably, text their coworkers, and provide feedback whenever relevant—not just at the end of the year. As leaders, they’ll also be eager to have their teams test the latest and greatest in technology, but they may forget to slow down for others. In the end, millennials’ relaxed attitude with both dress and communication will make it challenging for them to earn respect from boomers.

How they relate
While boomers may appreciate their millennial bosses keeping them on the cutting edge of technology, millennials will have to remember to engage in more frequent, face-to-face communication with their boomer employees about understanding and using new tools. Millennials will be stellar at providing boomers with the positive and optimistic outlook they all thrive on, but the two generations will have to work together to establish the best way to deliver feedback.

Millennials managing Gen X

Of their predecessors, Millennials will likely struggle the most when managing Gen X. They’ll have some hurdles to overcome when it comes to connecting with a generation much more practical, pragmatic and direct than their own.

Gen X
Between skyrocketing divorce rates and more mothers entering the workforce,  Xers grew up in a time when being a latchkey kid was common. They became self-reliant and self-sufficient from a young age, and they remain so to this day. Xers disdain long, formal meetings, and they feel that they do their best work on their own. They’re very skeptical and prefer their leaders to be efficient, transparent, knowledgeable resources who just don’t deliver “compliment sandwiches”—criticism sandwiched between compliments.

Ever since they were young, millennials were encouraged to collaborate. Schools across the country incorporated collaboration into almost all curricula, and with the advent of social media, millennials were able to collaborate with friends and family across the world. This preference for collaboration, however, could morph into a serious demotivation factor for the hands-off Gen X. Millennials also grew accustomed to frequent and instantaneous feedback while growing up, and they might fall into that well-intentioned trap of giving feedback the way they wish to receive it. When your manager is flooding you with unsolicited and unwanted feedback, it’s going to feel like micromanagement.

How they relate
To circumvent the communication and feedback preferences between these two very-different generations, millennials will need to understand how to occasionally live at that 40,000-foot level rather than zoomed right in. They also need to find a balance between independent work and collaboration in the office to suit the needs of their Xer employees.

Millennial leaders are here. Are you prepared?

Austyn Rask

Austyn Rask works at the generational research and consulting firm BridgeWorks in Wayzata, Minnesota, conducting research, writing blogs, and collaborating on consulting projects. She has a bachelor's degree in technical writing and communications from the University of Minnesota, and she brings her Gen Edge perspective to the BridgeWorks team.

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