Dr. Strangerules or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Millennials

(with apologies to Stanley Kubrick)

Vernon Church

By Vernon Church, Chief Operating Officer, Sweden Unlimited

A thousand years ago, when I first entered the workplace, my Greatest Generation father, a WWII gunner who had been lost at sea for 30 days, gave me only one bit of advice, “Get in before your boss. Leave after him. Do twice the work he asks for in half the time.” The implication, aside from the thankfully absurd idea that all my bosses would be men, was that by putting my head down, not questioning and working hard, I would get ahead.

This advice was charmingly simple and naive. But for a man from a generation that never questioned authority, thought suffering and its twin toughness were requisite in life and had helped save the world from fascism, the logic followed. In his version of the Slim Pickens’ cowboy aesthetic, a man’s word was his bond, no one owed you anything and grit always won the day. He worked for the same company for almost 40 years, got a watch and a kiss from belly-dancer and retired. Certainly different times.

Turns out dad was right, but only for a time. I suffered through a few jobs with “two weeks vacation for the first two years and then an additional week each year thereafter up to 5” because I was tough and thought I had grit and wanted to make it. There were no work from home provisions. The term “flexible hours” had not been invented. Absences due to sickness required a doctor’s note or—in the most forward thinking companies of the day--were subtracted from vacation time. I followed all these rules because they described a game that I had a feeling I could win. In any case, it was the only game, so I played. But I was fairly miserable.

Fortunately, the workplace disruption that began 20 years ago with the now internet/ tech giants changed all that. The come-when-you-like-play-as-you-work aesthetic they promoted was, in itself, disruptive and genius. The rational is easy to understand. If people get free time and free stuff, they like to be at work so they work longer. If they have a piece of the action, they are literally working for themselves while they are working for you so they work harder. If those workers also believe in the cause--that they are doing good or at least having fun--all the better.

If I may speak for my generation—the on the cusp boom-Xers--that scares us to death. Our instincts have not evolved to be anything but suspicious and anxious about a lack of top down control. The existential questions haunt our dreams: How will we get all the work done? Who will be in charge? Will I get blamed when it all falls apart? Can these inexperienced young people be trusted?

Consequently, many older workers—who are now managers or occupying the C-suite—scoff at these new, more permissive ways and do their best to maintain the status quo that made them successful. But they are swimming against a talent tsunami that refuses to play along. Millennials and their gen-Z sibs are over it, and you should be too if you want your organization to thrive.

Let me put my gristled cohort at ease. Having managed millennials as long as there have been millennials to be managed, I can assure you that, while they need mentoring, the odd assist and a dash of guidance from the more experienced, they’ve got this. And I have proof.

In my last few positions at incredibly creative companies founded and run by smart people with real vision and expertise, I arrived to find the generational divide on full display. Almost uniformly there was a perception by management that employees, and in particular millennials, were uncooperative, unmotivated and unmanageable and by employees, also in particular millennials, that management was heavy-handed, untrusting and prone to wading into the weeds with a virtual lawnmower cutting down every good idea along the way.

The origins of this disconnect are as psychological as they are procedural. Yes, millennials want more autonomy and freedom to work smarter, rather than harder, but their response to not getting it is inevitably passive–aggression. Management, unaware consciously of how uncomfortable this all makes them feel, becomes more controlling as it seeks to calm its fear of chaos. It is a match made in dysfunctional heaven.

The first step in resolving this impasse is getting everyone to acknowledge that something is wrong and that they are all to blame. The second is to establish intention and trust; that is, everyone wants to make things better and everyone needs to believe that. Anyone who is unwilling to get on that ship needs to be made aware they will be left on the dock. Then you take a deep cleansing breath, throw most of the rules about how and when people work and play overboard, and steam out of port

And that’s exactly what we did. Of course, I’m sure, that early on most people expected failure. They believed management would revert or that employees would burn down the building in a modern take on William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But that’s not what happened. Piggy didn’t die and the rabble didn’t rouse. Our young millennial colleagues didn’t head for the hills, take 3 months off to trek in Nepal, or spend every afternoon at home watching this crazy old show called Seinfeld that they just discovered on Netflix.

Instead, everyone just got on with it. Employees took a little more vacation than usual, scheduled around their big projects, and dove in energetically when they were in the office. They stayed home for the occasional UPS delivery or to take the cat to the vet, but showed up bright-eyed and enthusiastic to every client meeting. They produced great work with little oversight, but became more open to guidance along the way. People started to talk with one another, rather than about one another. They became a team and acted like the smart professionals we had hoped we had hired in the first place. They truly began to shine.

Aside from the need for an occasional same-gen group hug, management stopped managing so much and started thinking about how to grow the business. They stopped infantilizing people and pushed difficult decisions back on them. They began to feel smart for hiring smart people and virtuous for trusting them to do their jobs. And that trust made them comfortable ceding more authority and making employees feel respected. That respect encouraged confidence, improving performance and completing virtuous circle.

In many ways, good management is like traveling to another country. When a conscientious wayfarer visits an unfamiliar land, she learns a few phrases and a bit about the culture so as to reach out across the divide. The best travelers attempt to meet the locals more than halfway as they are, after all, guests in a foreign land.

Management is similar. Those in the middle or their careers are in many ways from another culture. Their job is to understand and reach out to their younger colleagues, who are more connected to what is happening now, and meet them more than halfway. Are millennials hard to manage? No more so than any other generation. You just need to understand their culture and trust that when you reach out, they will accept the offer. Good managers realize this and are not afraid to make changes to motivate, mentor, and in the process learn from, those who follow them.

Vernon Church