Does the conversation above between two non-millennial managers sound familiar? The sentiments, corroborated by KPMG’s 2017 report “Meet The Millennials", are indicative of inter-generational tension—particularly between Gen X managers and their millennial teammates or reports—that takes a toll on productivity, relationships and the workplace environment.

What before why

The internet has made knowledge borderless, and, by putting the world of information at their fingertips, rendered millennials extraordinarily informed. “Millennials are the first generation that does not need an authority figure to access information. Consequently, millennials do not have a felt need to initiate a relationship with authority figures...this has changed the dynamics of how the millennials relate to them," explain Chip Espinoza and Mick Ukleja, authors of the 2010 book Managing The Millennials. So it is not unusual to find millennials expressing their views freely, challenging the status quo, asking questions, or even saying “no" to a mandate or request without a hint of hesitation. However, “while these behaviours emanate from their confidence, sometimes millennial employees can come across as abrasive," says Monty Bharali, national head, talent and human resources, at advertising and marketing agency Ogilvy & Mather India.

Sanjay Shesh, managing director of Crowley Accord Marine Management Pvt. Ltd, a ship-owning and -management company, shares his experience at a top notch marine engineering college where the company conducted interviews for entry-level associates. On being asked, “What can the company expect from you?", a millennial candidate responded: “I will give it my best shot if I am treated well by your company. Else, I will explore greener pastures." Shesh remembers being taken aback, but came to look upon it as an experience that gave him a better understanding of millennial behaviour. This nonchalant attitude manifests itself in several workplace contexts, often leading to tension. 

Defuse this:  “Non-millennials would do well to understand that this behaviour does not necessarily represent disrespect, and that it stems more from inherent confidence and a non-hierarchical mindset," says Bharali. Gen X managers would certainly be better off answering the “why" before the “what" in their conversations, and realizing that they will be respected not as much for their knowledge as for the perspective and wisdom they bring to the table. “Millennials, on the other hand, would also do better by respecting and leveraging the experience of, and adapting their communication style to that of, the non-millennial managers in some cases," says Sunil Wariar, chief human resources officer, Future Generali India Insurance Co. Ltd. 

 Be open to ideas  

Shesh believes millennials think of non-millennials as conventional, rigid, averse to change, and less receptive to ideas. This is confirmed by Espinoza and Ukleja’s survey of about 800 millennials from around the world, which found that millennials perceive non-millennials as process, rather than outcome, oriented; this, they thought, limited the possibility of quick and smart work. Moreover, millennials felt their ideas were either disregarded or not taken seriously owing to their lack of experience. Given that millennials do bring in distinctive ideas, fresh perspectives and unique insights, this perception is bound to generate workplace tension.

Defuse this: Non-millennials should drop their “lack of experience" bias, soliciting the views of millennials and leveraging their creativity and ideas. “Millennials, on the other hand, need to evaluate issues more intensely and suggest fixes based on a deeper, rather than just a surface, understanding. They would also benefit from inculcating the art of stating their case more persuasively, contextually, and with a greater degree of audience-centricity, in addition to building their credibility and investing in relationships for their ideas to be taken more seriously," says Wariar.

Be a coach  

Millennials can’t imagine a world where one would wait hours, or even days, for a long-distance call to get through or a written message to get across. They have grown up in a world where things can be done at the click of a button, 24x7—from refurbishing one’s wardrobe, shopping for groceries and watching a movie to binge-viewing a TV show and availing of banking services. “This has instilled a sense of impatience and an expectation of instant gratification in almost every facet of their lives, including career progression," says Abhishek Jha, global human resources director at IT solutions company e-Emphasys Technologies. This has also translated into goals and vision that not long-term. The clichéd question, “Where do you see yourself five years from now?", is likely to elicit quizzical expressions—millennials   probably do not think that far.

Defuse this: “Quick, frequent, spot awards, rather than the conventional annual and quarterly rewards that organizations typically provide, are likely to work better for millennials," says Jha. Faced with the seemingly unrealistic career aspirations of millennials, non-millennial managers need to understand that just because it took them 10 years to get to a particular level doesn’t mean millennials can’t do it in less. Second, donning a coach’s hat, they need to help draw up a road map for career progression, reinforcing the fact that even in this fast, efficient and technology-driven world, there are no short cuts to learning skills and building relationships.  

Engage with flexibility 

Society and the workplace have changed dramatically and job security, one of the key employment aspects valued by previous generations, does not enjoy the same level of importance any longer. “Millennials today have a wider set of options, and, therefore, would logically look for the best deal. They also have a wider set of interests outside of work—whether it is social responsibility or a hobby. Employers are today at a point where they need to re-adapt their approach to talent management by being more attentive to the needs and aspirations of this generation," says Madhavi Lall, managing director and HR head at Deutsche Bank India.  

Millennials may have no qualms about deferring a job offer by a few months or taking a sabbatical in order to soak up “experiences"—this may even take precedence over work, inevitably leading to tension. But non-millennials grumbling about ‘millennials lacking ownership, coming and going as they please, not willing to stretch’, etc., just sound like pet peeves," says Jha. 

Defuse this: It would help non-millennial managers to be flexible, holding millennials accountable for output rather than tracking when, where and how they work, and proactively drawing up schedules so as not to fling surprises on a Friday.  Millennials, in turn, need to respect the organization’s rules of engagement, says Shesh—“not only to ease tensions, but to build their own credibility".

Charu Sabnavis is a coach, an organizational development facilitator and founder director of Delta Learning.

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