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Feedback: Fuel That Sparks The Millennial’s Flame

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The fact that millennials are ardent Googlers is well established. In the article ‘Why Google Isn’t Your Friend’, I explored the possible underlying motivation for this never-ending search for answers by this tech-savvy cohort. The conclusion I suggested is that millennials have a craving for guidance in their personal lives- and more relevantly, in the workplace. But with research showing that two-thirds of working millennials don’t ask directly for the feedback they so desire, how then can managers ensure that they bridge this paradoxical schism within their organisations? More on this a bit later.

First, I’d like to start with a story. A young graduate, Brian, got his first job working as a graphic designer at a local magazine. His was a multi-generational workplace with an older boss who had years of experience in running a publishing company. Brian had an excellent eye for design and was committed to modernizing the visual appearance of the magazine with his edgy creativity. The only accusation one could fling at Brian was that he was a perfectionist because his delivery time almost always played close to the print deadline.

Needless to say, this always had his tenured boss on edge, and he was obliged to bring it up every time it happened. Even though he regularly mentioned how much he valued his work, the boss was surprised when a couple of months into the job, Brian handed in a resignation notice. What had gone wrong? How was the magazine losing a promising talent so soon, moreover, to a competitor?

What the boss didn’t realize was that the root of Brian’s disgruntlement was a simple miscommunication. While the boss thought that he was conveying a sense of appreciation to young Brian by providing him with corrective feedback through criticism of his time management of tasks, what it did, however, was that it overshadowed in Brian’s mind the few accolades of “good job” he received for his actual output. What the boss failed to do was to provide guidance as to exactly how Brian could improve.

Of all the things millennial workers crave from a job, the right kind of performance feedback may be among the most important when it comes to retaining them. Conversely, the wrong kind of feedback may be the thing that drives them away.

Millennials want to know that the people they work for can be trusted to be a source of mentorship and have their best interests in mind. Unlike older generations who are wired with a ‘just get it done’ mentality, millennials have grown up receiving constant feedback from parents, teachers, and peers. They’re used to hearing almost immediately whether people approve or disapprove of their thoughts and works, as exemplified by the highly sought-after likes and retweets on social media, as well as the validation of subjective Google searches.

So while millennials want feedback but won’t ask for it, what can older managers do to address this issue for the betterment of both the employee and the workplace?

First, managers of millennials want to focus on what is meaningful to millennials. Talk with them, not to them. Pick an appropriate time, place and individual to offer feedback. Don’t lash out in the moment, and worse, don’t point out individual mistakes in a group setting like a staff meeting or in front of a client.

By creating an environment that welcomes conversation, you set the stage for the kind of meaningful feedback that demonstrates to the individual how to learn, grow, and do their jobs better. This, in turn, leads to improved productivity and performance.

Your feedback should be focused on the employee’s performance and work product, not on the employee themselves. For example, rather than questioning work ethic or time-keeping, point out specific areas for improvement. Perform subsequent observations to give feedback on whether improvement occurred. Millennials don’t know everything there is to know unless you show them.

Lastly, zero-in on specifics with your feedback. Avoid being too general whether it’s with praise or criticism. For instance instead of “Good job”, try, “I appreciate the level of professionalism you showed at today’s client brief.” Or, instead of “Your behaviour is not acceptable”, how about, “I know that you know best what needs to change and I trust that you will do the right thing next time.”

If it sounds like a bit like coddling, it isn’t. Remember, this is about learning how best to deal with cross-generational schisms in the modern workplace. As vital as feedback is to the millennial, it also won’t work if it doesn’t penetrate the layers of expectation and sensitivity surrounding this generational cohort. Otherwise, Google will be there to validate them- for better or for worse.


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