Talking With Millennials…Not At Them

Last week our office brought in a speaker to give an L&D Presentation on how to communicate professionally.  Because of a schedule conflict I could not attend the session, but a friend and colleague of mine did attend.  Afterwards, we went for our normal morning walk (which I find is good for both physical and mental health) and she gave me a run down of what I had missed in the session.  The speaker, who she described as in his late fifties to early sixties, was a professor and gave a decent presentation.  The topic was appropriate for the setting, and she felt it was a good, high-level overview.  But there was something in the presentation that bothered her as she was listening to it, and she asked me “Do you think Millennials just have a different style of communicating?”

What was it that had annoyed her about the presentation? I asked.  She replied, “He was doing the typical emphasizing I vs. Me statements.  Things like if a report was interpreted wrong, don’t say ‘You didn’t interpret this right’, say, ‘I feel that you may have interpreted this report incorrectly’ and such.  I just kept thinking that I would be completely offended if a manager said something like that to me.  If this just a Millennial thing?” she asked.  (Just for the record, my colleague and I are both considered to be Millennials, although I am frequently considered Generation X as well since I am slightly older)

I told her that I agree with her, and that I would be offended by that to, because it’s basically trying to get away with saying “You’re wrong” without actually saying it.  The first example that came to my mind is the non-apology apology…you’ve heard this before.  Someone says or does something that offends you, and their response when you confront them on it is “I’m sorry if you were offended by this.”  That statement, of course, is NOT an apology in any form…it’s a blame shift.  The speaker isn’t taking responsibility for what they have done nor have they apologized for doing something wrong, they are shifting blame for the situation to the offended party by saying “It’s YOUR fault that you are offended by what I did”. These statements from the seminar, which were advocated as a good example of professional communication, are the same blame-shifting pattern.  It might be a sneakier way of saying “You screwed up”, but it’s still saying “You screwed up” as well as showing that the speaker is confident that the person they are talking to is dumb enough that they won’t catch the insult.

Yet this is what passes for professional communication in the workplace.  I speculated that a lot of it came from the fact that the C-Suite and leaders of most companies are still Baby Boomers, and they respond well to that kind of communication.  But to a Millennial, that’s the kind of stuff that drives us nuts and can quite often lead to conflict if the employee were to call the speaker out for their deflection.  Given some time, I told her, I was confident professional speaking norms will catch up to the societal changes.

The point was further driven home when we returned to our desks, and she immediately sent me a marketing e-mail she had received titled How to Sell Your Idea to Millennials, which of course featured another Baby Boomer stating confidently that he had taken the initiative to “…speak to some of the most respected minds when it comes to Millennials” and re-directed to this article on Forbes where the author Ian Altman of Grow My Revenue interviewed several people about how to market to Millennials.  A search of the LinkedIn Profiles of these interviewees demonstrated that not a single one of them were Millennials.  So essentially, it was Baby Boomers talking to other Baby Boomers about how to understand Millennials.  Huh

If I could give Mr. Altman a bit of advice: If you are looking for ways to increase your sales effectiveness with Millennials, it might help to actually talk to some.  There are plenty of us around who are capable of speech and intelligent thought, and quite frankly it’s insulting to be examined like some kind of science experiment by Baby Boomers who are evidently quite happy to talk about/speculate about/study Millennials amongst themselves, but who don’t actually gather any input from Millennials.

ATD_lockup_v_lg_cmykOn the flip side, I recently watched a Webinar from the Association for Talent Development titled From the Mouths of Millennials: Priceless Tips for Managers.  The presenter, Malati Shinazy of Pacific Leadership Consultants, began by speaking about her frustrations dealing with Millennial employees.  But then, she decided to try to understand them to help her be a better manager and to have better relationships with this new employee cohort.  But rather than going to the typical research route (which appears to be only talking to other Baby Boomers and looking at staid academic research which may or may not be very helpful or enlightening and is also conducted by Baby Boomers), she decided to take a page from cultural anthropology and speak to them and study them herself.  Malati admitted right off the bat that she was a Baby Boomer, and she knew that she was going to need to enlist the help of a Millennial, and so she brought in a Millennial to help her not only with the survey work, but also to analyze what some of the responses meant.  At the end, working together they were able to synthesize a pretty good picture of not only who Millennials are, but why they are that way.  Just like the famous iceberg analogy, you only see a small part of who Millennials are; if you want to understand why, try asking them.  Now the webinar wasn’t perfect…part of it was still heading towards patronizing, which is something that many Millennials cannot stomach.  But it was a much closer and much more accurate look at our cohort than much of what is available, including the marketing e-mail.

The-BS-DetectorMillennials have grown up being advertised to our entire lives.  We have seen it demonstrated that what is said is not what happens.  We were raised on TV shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which expose the blatant hypocrisy and B.S. that infests not only politics, but the business world as well.  As a result, we have very finely-honed B.S. radar.  We are fluent in the language and we know exactly what it is trying to cover for.  This is one of the reasons a common complaint about Millennials is that they “Lack social skills” or “Don’t listen very well”.  That isn’t the case…we simply don’t have the time or the desire to listen to the Boomer-preferred round of what passes for professional communication.  If you tell us “I feel like you interpreted this report inaccurately” and then go on to sermonize why, you are going to lose us very fast.  It’s much faster and much more efficient to tell us that we screwed up and work with us on how to fix it so we can move on to the next thing on our calendar.

Millennials are more than willing to tell you this; we want our opinions heard and taken seriously in the workplace just like anyone else.  But if you want to know, you not only have to ask us, you also have to be willing to actually hear what we have to say.

  1. […] Millennial generation, including September’s What Do Millennials Want? and last week’s Talking With Millennials, Not At Them.  One of the major themes of the first post is that Millennials have very different career goals […]



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