At a luncheon for women business owners a few weeks ago, several people at my table complained about the Millennials on their staffs: They don’t follow directions or only do exactly what we tell them, and they don’t take the work seriously. These business leaders practically egged each other on: Millennials are sullen; they don’t communicate; and, when facing big project deadlines, never go the extra mile.

Getting to Know Your Millennials

After a few minutes, I interrupted the game of Can You Top This. “Maybe your Millennials would respond a little better if you didn’t treat them like a monolith,” I said. “Have you ever asked them individually what they care about? Are they really all the same?”

Once I pushed for specifics, the most self-reflective of the women at my table agreed with me: “Actually, they’re not all the same. And we could be paying more attention to them as individuals.”

5 Ways to Break Down the Monolith and Build Up the Millennials

To work effectively with Millennials, let’s break down the monolithic perspective and the sense of riding herd on a bunch of challenging employees. It’s not fair, and it’s not productive. Instead, think of Millennials as people who have experienced similar societal shifts because they happen to be in a particular age range, and use these pointers to build an up-and-coming network and cadre:

  1. Millennials want to make a difference, so watch for leadership potential as well as subject matter expertise. So what if they really did get trophies growing up, whether they deserved them or not? What will make a difference now is your acknowledging their legitimate improvements, however small, and their continuing dedication. How have you thanked and praised your Millennials individually this week? Don’t worry about their getting swelled heads. Worry about whether they’ll assume they don’t matter to you. Let them know that while they’re on your team, they have a chance to do something important and wonderful.
  2. Just because you’ve been around longer doesn’t mean you know more about everything; Millennials see people their age accomplishing amazing things all around the world. They’ll figure out pretty quickly whether you respect them as individuals or underestimate them just because they’re junior. If you haven’t been asking them what they think, start a dialog: “How does situation X affect you? Can you see a way to make it better?” Challenge their curiosity and their logic: “What made you come to that conclusion? What was your thinking process?” Never cut them off by saying, “No, that’s wrong!” or tell them, “That wouldn’t work here.” That doesn’t provide context about WHY something might not work, plus, you’ve lost a teaching moment. Instead, ask thoughtful questions to understand their perspective. Acknowledge what they say and recognize that it’s important — even if only to them.
  3. If they think nobody is listening to them, Millennials can turn off or shut down. When they notice flaws and don’t see prompt improvements, they may assume their seniors are all maintaining self-protective stasis. Their short tenure means they can’t know yet how much has already changed and improved in the organization. So tell them. Sure, they may not listen well, and they can sound like know-it-alls, but most of us were like that when we were young. Encourage Millennials to contribute by not speaking first or being dismissive. And whenever possible, let them represent their accomplishments to senior management directly, rather than through an intermediary.
  4. Millennials are comfortable figuring things out themselves, so they don’t always realize when they need help; they’ll also make mistakes when they don’t understand the context or history. They’ll Google a situation, ask Quora, or crowdsource a problem to their friends on social networks — all potentially good sources of general information, but bad sources for exactly how you want things to work in your shop. Millennials often come up with nontraditional solutions, which can be very confronting. But look at the upside! They’ll bring you new ideas and freshened-up approaches that come from beginner’s mind. You’ll just have to acclimate them more and guide them toward more relevant solutions.
  5. “What’s next?” That’s what Millennials want to know — both in their work and for your company — and how they’ll fit into that picture. Tell them, plainly, what’s not up to snuff about their performance, so they can make their next move successfully. Don’t send them back 100 times to fix a draft assuming they understand how you want it; give them context and examples for making all those revisions. Tell them what the future holds for them, optimistically, laying out the requirements for both their behavior and accomplishments. If your future isn’t for them, discuss that openly — and make plans for the next step together.