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Don’t Be So Touchy! The Secrets for Giving Feedback to Millennials

by Joanne G. Sujansky, CSP and Jan Ferri-Reed, Ph.D.

Joanne Sujansky

Brian Castro’s help desk department serves more than 1,000 end-users at his company’s distribution center. Among the 23 employees in his multi-generational staff are several Millennials (born 1980-1999) who he hired last year, fresh out of college.

Like the rest of Brian’s help desk staff, his Millennials are excellent at solving difficult computer problems, usually under a critical deadline. Overall Brian, a Baby Boomer, is pleased with his new hires and tells them just how much he values them.

That’s why Brian was shocked when his most promising Millennial showed up at his office Monday morning and announced that Friday would be his last day. The young employee was leaving for a new job “where he would be truly appreciated.” Brian was speechless. How had he gone wrong?

The Challenge of Managing Millennials
Actually, Brian may be an above-average manager whose confidence in his staff is deeply appreciated by most of his employees. But his style of coaching and giving feedback may be better suited to his more tenured employees rather than his Millennials. Both the WWII generation and their offspring, the Baby Boomers, were raised on the mantra of “just get the job done.” Although feedback is important to them, they may not demand high doses of it like the Millennials.

For Millennials, on the other hand, constant feedback is an almost critical ingredient in performance and job satisfaction. It sometimes seems as if this younger generation has an insatiable appetite for praise. And if they don’t receive the recognition they feel they deserve, they may be more likely to bail out of their jobs for greener pastures. Why the craving for feedback and praise?

The children of Baby Boomers, the Millennial Generation (sometimes also called Generation Y) have been raised in an atmosphere of high expectations, plenty of feedback and heaps of praise. They have received feedback on class assignments at each stage of development and are used to getting support throughout the completion of tasks and projects. Many observers consider them to be spoiled and unrealistic in their job expectations. They complain that Millennials show up late, leave early, refuse overtime, and expect to be promoted without “paying their dues.”

However we can’t escape the fact that Millennials are going to transform the workplace over the next five years. By 2014 there will be more than 58 million Millennials employed in various organizations in the U.S. alone! Employers must begin adapting to the challenge of managing Millennials or risk high employee turnover and decreased productivity.

Communicating With Millennials
Brian’s problem with his disgruntled Millennial employee is rooted in miscommunication. Brian thought he was conveying a sense of appreciation to the young man by providing him with lots of corrective feedback to get him on the right track. Instead of feeling appreciated, however, the few short accolades of “good job” were overshadowed in the employee’s mind by the more frequent criticisms he received – without guidance as to exactly how he could improve.

So what’s a manager to do? Coddle his or her employees? Hardly!

Managers must give feedback to their employees (it’s central to the job description) but feedback won’t work if it doesn’t penetrate the layers of expectation and sensitivity surrounding most Millennials.

The secret is to structure your feedback – whether positive or negative – in a framework that leaves no room for misunderstanding. Feedback has to be clear and specific to be effective. And by the way, this is true for all employees, no matter what age!

So, to make sure your feedback hits the mark employ these strategies:

  • Strike a Balance – Find opportunities to provide both corrective feedback and positive feedback. Let the employee know that he or she is a valued member of the team who can make even greater contributions by changing some behaviors.
  • Describe the Problem Specifically – Don’t just label the employee’s behavior “unacceptable.” Explain the nature of the problem in detail and how it affects the organization. Build on the employee’s strengths by explaining what aspects of the job he or she is doing well and how improving the specific area of performance will benefit him or her and the organization
  • Involve the Employee in the Solution – Instead of dictating, "Here's what you need to do to change," ask the employee for ideas about what he or she can do differently. Be ready to provide specific examples of how the employee can be even more successful.
  • Establish a Follow-up Expectation – Ask the employee to commit to behaviors that need to change and set a due date for review. Stick to that follow-up schedule and make sure you acknowledge changes and improvements.

And also try to give plenty of on-the-spot feedback as the employee is progressing. Don’t make the mistake of confining your praise to formal meetings. Catch your employee “doing something right” and let him or her know on the spot that you noticed. Give a pat on the back when it’s deserved!

Cracking the Millennials’ Code
Millennials are far more accustomed to receiving praise, congratulations and positive reinforcement as opposed to criticism and negative feedback. Corrective feedback can seem like an attack to many Millennials. It may actually raise their defenses, thus causing them to “tune out” and miss valuable guidance. To provide solid feedback you have to “crack the Millennials’ code,” giving feedback that acknowledges areas for improvement while building on their strengths.

Managers too often give feedback in vague generalities that come across as threatening, frequently saying things like:

“Your behavior is not acceptable. You need to stop (the problem behavior) now because you are causing problems for others. If you don’t change there will be consequences. Correct it and we’ll talk about this again at a later time.”

This doesn’t resonate with employees, particularly Millennials, because they would rather hear something more positive (and unrealistic), such as:

“You’ve been doing a terrific job and I’m very happy with the results. Regarding (the problem) I know you had the best of intentions and that it really wasn’t your fault. I know that you know best what needs to change and that you will follow through. I trust you to do the right thing and make these changes as soon as you can.”

While more positive in tone, this approach is just as general and as unlikely to yield results as the first example. Instead, following the model above, you need to say:

“I’m very happy with many of the things that you’ve been doing, such as (give examples). However, if you improve (the problem behavior) it will be good for you and for the organization. I understand what you intended, but if you make these changes you’ll be more successful. However, if you don’t make the changes there will be consequences (give examples). What are you willing to commit to? Let’s agree to review progress on the changes that you committed to make by (set a date).

Managing Millennials may be challenging. But when you take the time to consider reframing your communication, you’ll find that your Generation Y employees will respond with enthusiasm and commitment. You may even be surprised at how well this applies to all generations of employees!

Dr. Joanne G. Sujansky, CSP (Certified Speaking Professional), has more than 25 years of experience helping to create cool workplaces that attract, retain and get the most from their multi-generational talent. As founder of KEYGroup, she and Dr. Jan Ferri-Reed, KEYGroup president, provide businesses with insightful information to create engaged, productive and profitable organizations. Together, they’re co-authors of the best-selling book, “Keeping the Millennials: Why Companies Are Losing Billions in Turnover to This Generation and What to Do About It.” To hire them, visit: or call 724-942-7900.


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