A Manager-Millennial Disconnect

Recent study shows surprising disconnects between what managers think of millennials and what millennials think of managers. Also surprising are what most believe millennials want at work and what they really want.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013
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There may be more disconnect between millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) and their often-older managers than we thought. And some of the reasons for this may surprise you.

In a recent study by Boston-based Millennial Branding and New York-based American Express, 1,000 millennial employees and 1,000 managers said they are on the same page when it comes to the importance of workplace success and how to achieve it, but have very conflicting views on how the two factions can help one another get there.

According to the findings, while Gen Y (a.k.a., millennial) workers have a positive view of their managers, believing that those managers can offer experience (59 percent), wisdom (41 percent) and a willingness to mentor (33 percent), managers feel their young workers have unrealistic compensation expectations (51 percent) and a poor work ethic (47 percent), and are easily distracted.

"I think these numbers really tell the story," says Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding and author of the recently released book Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success. Findings from the survey, Gen Y Workplace Expectations, are included in the book.

"One real interesting thing," he says, "is that managers view millennials as narcissistic and only out for themselves, yet no one asked the millennials how they felt about their managers. They're actually respectful and searching for more mentoring than they're getting."

The study shows surprising agreement between the two groups when it comes to skills needed for promotion. Both agree that soft skills top the list (61 percent of managers and 65 percent of millennials) and that being a subject-matter expert is important or very important to career advancement (65 percent of managers and 66 percent of millennials). Also surprising is the agreement (66 percent of managers and 62 percent of millennials) that in-person meetings between manager and employee are the preferred means of communication. And here we thought millennials were all about their social media.  

Equally, if not more, surprising are the disagreements. Managers are supportive of entrepreneurial Gen Yers who want to chase business opportunities (58 percent), yet far fewer Gen Yers (40 percent) are either very interested or extremely interested in taking on new business opportunities. The only telling reason for this discrepancy, says Schawbel, is that younger workers aren't getting clear messages about "how far they can go [and] don't want to overstep their bounds in today's job market."

Managers are very or extremely willing to support millennials who want to move within the corporation (73 percent), yet fewer than half of the surveyed millennials (48 percent) are very or extremely interested in making the move. One telling statistic is that more than half (53 percent) of millennials feel the creation of a mentoring relationship would help them become better, more productive contributors to their organizations.

In essence, says Schawbel, "they're looking for more mentoring than they're getting."

His message to employers: "Give millennials a chance and an environment that supports their pursuits. Millennials know face time is important, but the majority of managers aren't doing it enough.

"Employers," he says, "should give them the message that, 'If you want to succeed here, come in to my office at least once a week.' The problem is companies have all the leverage right now because of the job market. But in several years, millennials will have all the leverage. The latest reports show that by 2015, 50 percent of the workforce will be millennials. Companies simply cannot afford a bulk of turnover to be from millennials."

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Valerie Grillo, chief diversity officer at American Express, agrees with Schawbel's warning shot. "We live in a world where digital and social media have completely changed the way we connect with our customers," she says. "The companies that figure out how to successfully market to and attract millennials will be primed for success in this increasingly competitive business environment."

So just how is this to be accomplished?

Schawbel suggests employers and their HR teams establish programs that support the needs and cultural preferences of their Gen Yers. Some employers, he says, are getting this and "are creating these programs, [knowing] if they prepare that [supportive culture], then their retention rate will be that much better."

So what goes in to such a culture? What are some of these needed programs? Schawbel rattles off just a few: "Set up an internal-hiring program," he says, "giving employees first shot at internal jobs. Establish mentoring programs and clearly defined entrepreneurial programs that allow them to work outside their job descriptions, or where they get to come up with a pitch and actually take it in front of the executive committee."

Community-service programs are also key, he says, as "millennials are extremely community-minded." Workplace flexibility is extremely important too, he adds, but that isn't confined to millennials, of course. Not in today's knowledge-driven, results-only, 24/7 business world.

Instituting even some of these programs, says Schawbel, "is going to be so big [for corporations because] programs that benefit millennials really benefit everybody."


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