Break down barriers

September 19, 2018

The renowned Israeli social scientist, Yuval Harari, has said, “The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively.”

Unless, it seems, some of those humans are millennials. The millennial generation is the most connected generation in the workforce today. But misunderstandings are keeping us from fulfilling on the promise of interconnected technology, as demographic differences keep us apart.

This disconnect comes from how we look at millennials, and how we (of the older generation) see ourselves. It is only natural to project our own life experience onto others. After all, we tend to look at the world from our point of view. But we all have the ability to step outside of our own experience, if we choose to do so. Labeling younger generations as entitled, narcissistic, self-interested, unfocused, or lazy is not going to build any bridges. While some millennials may work hard (or not work at all) to deserve these monikers, how are preconceptions and misplaced labels going to do anything but crush engagement?

According to Curt Steinhorst, author of Can I Have Your Attention?, the generation that is most offended by the entitlement we have heard so much about is not Gen X. It is other millennials. These hardworking millennials see people their age living out negative stereotypes, while their more industrious counterparts are working hard to create real impact. And this impact, in the workforce, comes from a new kind of connection that goes beyond AI and technology. It is a connection that is built from powerful, cross-generational conversations, which flourish when you apply these five strategies:

 01 team up to ‘think it through’

The ability to understand causal relationships—the potential outcomes of a given course of action—can be elusive to younger generations. But not entirely. Sometimes, millennials just need a nudge to think it through. And this is where baby boomers and Gen Xers can help.

If you have a team member who is bringing forward new ideas (regardless of his or her age), what can you and others do to walk through all the options and outcomes? Remember, none of us is as smart as all of us. Framing and sharing context are central to our ability to work together. According to Managing the Millennials, only one in five millennials takes the initiative to connect with their superiors. Which means your outreach plan is critical. Do you partner new employees with mentors? Does your organization have a formal ‘buddy system’, where seasoned leaders can help cultivate new talent outside of the onboarding process?

02 do not recreate the past

In the always-on era of Google, information is at everyone’s fingertips. Maybe you did not live through the Vietnam conflict, but the statistics, history, images, and videos of this era are available with just a few clicks. Often, those who lived through significant historic events feel diminished by those who dismiss the past. But historical events are search terms, rather than life events, for the newest generation in the workplace.

While it is true that those who do not understand history are destined to repeat it, consider what Carmen Simon says in her book, Impossible to Ignore—the past is only useful when it helps us predict the future. While no characteristic applies to every member of any group, be it demographic, racial, or otherwise, millennials (for the most part) are dedicated to revising the world, not adopting it. These new leaders of tomorrow are not tied to history. Whether it is the wristwatch you wear or the cursive that you write, millennials reject what does not serve them. If you want to connect across generations, then look beyond the past toward the future. Will it not be valuable to have that fresh perspective? When 90 percent of the data in the world today was created in the last two years*, the undeniable answer is yes.

03 drive discovery

Today, there is no need to figure out where you need to go to conduct research; it is in your pocket. It was Samuel Johnson who said, “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it.” The former is disappearing in significance; the latter is the descriptor of the new age. The common drive for new discovery unifies us all, but this forward focus is sharpest for millennials.

In today’s business world, incremental improvements—and even massive shifts—do not necessarily rely on research. Discovery is the source of true innovation, and innovation is not age-specific. Just ask Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Airbnb’s Brian Chesky how old you have to be to have a billion-dollar idea. Does your organization’s culture encourage this type of innovation? I have worked to help raise over USD 50 million for student-run startups, launching over four dozen businesses in the process. Millennials bring new ideas. Some are crazy, some are out of context, and some just might be game changers. Formalizing a process around innovation can go a long way in creating powerful engagement, employee retention, and more.

04 replace expectations with agreement

Come in early, stay late. Do not play on your phone during a meeting. Come to your boss—not the CEO—with any questions. These basic understandings are one of many unspoken expectations held by baby boomers and Gen Xers. But like that pen in your pocket, a millennial might not see the need for these guidelines. With younger generations, you need to replace expectations with a clear agreement. If you expect full attention during a one-hour meeting, what is wrong with everyone agreeing to put all phones into a basket before the meeting’s start? If you want millennials to come to you, go to them and formalize a feedback process that works for everyone. Gain agreement; it is the antidote to unmet expectations.

 05 start with why, but do not stop there

What do you say to a child who asks ‘why?’ The answer is always a version of ‘because.’ While it is important not to treat your employees like children, remember there is a valuable lesson here for all of us—offering a reason creates greater understanding. For millennials and more, reasoning and context make decisions and strategies come to life. It is a mistake to think that millennials lack the skills, talent, and desire to accomplish a particular task. They might simply need some background information. Letting people know why certain things matter is not a generational restriction, it is good leadership. And ‘because’ is one word that can drive the context that matters. What can you do to create the context that matters most to the millennials in your organization?

Engaging the millennial generation is a process of deliberate communication, and not one of more emails or meetings. As leaders, we need to communicate in ways that allow all generations to hear our message. If it looks like there is something that is beyond the skills of any millennial you meet, ask yourself: are you underestimating his or her capabilities? Helping the next generation to think things through requires a consistent strategy, one that is based on outreach and defying labels. Clarity across all demographics is the only way to travel. That is how true leaders (of any generation) do not let differences slow down the team. And that is what hardworking millennials want—and need.