Gen X Bosses vs. Millennial Workers – The Contentious Divide

Author: Amy Hirsh Robinson | Source: HCI | Published: April 24, 2013

A lively panel, “Millennials Speak Out: How to Manage the Gen X Boss” at last month’s SXSW conference exposed the antagonistic attitudes between Gen X bosses and their Millennial direct reports.
Such contentious perspectives can be harmful to productivity and success if they are not appropriately handled by leaders and employees alike, and it is the responsiblity of both parties to determine what they can do to mediate these situations.
Gen X bosses think their Millennial employees…

  • Are lazy and entitled
  • Believe their ability is higher than it is
  • Need constant affirmation and get their feelings hurt too easily

Millennials think their Gen X bosses…

  • Don’t like or trust them
  • Don’t involve them in decisions that impact their work
  • Could learn a lot from them

At the heart of this conflict are two distinct sets of generational values, motivations and behaviors that have become contentious, critical obstacles to performance and retention. Here are some guidelines for removing those obstacles:
Generation Xers: Managing Your Millennial Employee
Stay Connected:  Connected to parents and peers through close personal relationships and social media, Millennials are successful when they have an ongoing support and feedback system at work.

  • Connect frequently with Millennials using 2-minute debriefs or email/IM check-ins to answer questions and provide feedback.
  • Mentor Millennials to offer guidance and reinforce company culture and norms.
  • Take time to recognize Millennials by name on a daily basis.

Make it Meaningful:  Millennials want work to benefit society. They are more likely to perform (and less likely to quit!) if they feel their work has meaning and is connected to a bigger picture.

  • Explain the “why” behind your decisions - Don’t wait for them to ask!
  • Acknowledge Millennials’ work and its significance to the overall project/company.
  • Provide (and participate in!) social activities to foster community.

Enable Teamwork: Millennials are peer oriented and likely to feel isolated and disengaged from their work when they can’t collaborate with their boss.

  • Promote cross-functional teamwork and communication to complete assignments.
  • Include Millennials in brainstorming and goal setting sessions for their projects.
  • Provide technology to connect Millennials to their network and information.

Millennials:  Managing Your Gen X Boss
Demonstrate Initiative: Gen Xers were “latchkey kids” used to doing things on their own without supervision.  They expect the same of their direct reports.

  • Show your boss that you can solve problems with minimal guidance.
  • If you complete an assignment, ask for additional work to provide value.
  • Accept that sometimes you have to work late to complete projects.

Follow Up: Growing up, Gen Xers became risk-averse from the constant uncertainty of the energy crisis, the Cold War and AIDS. To mitigate threats at work, Gen Xers need to know that deadlines are being met.

  • Provide your boss with progress reports at regular intervals. 
  • If you make a request and don’t hear back, follow up to keep the project on deadline.
  • Let your boss know immediately if you won’t meet a deadline and what you plan to do about it.

Mind Their Time: Gen X managers balance competing demands to meet business goals. Under constant pressure to “do more with less” they often don’t have time for daily coaching to their direct reports.

  • Consolidate questions to email or scheduled meetings instead of interrupting your boss multiple times a day.
  • Be patient if your boss hasn’t responded quickly to your email.
  • Avoid phone/tablet use during meetings with your boss to show active listening. 

Amy Hirsh Robinson, MBA, is Principal of the Interchange Group and a leading expert on the impact of generational differences in the for-profit and not-for-profit workplace. She consults to C-level leaders on enterprise-wide strategies to reduce attrition costs, increase profitability and create agile workforces able to adapt to change. Amy is a popular speaker and author on the topic of attracting, retaining and managing top talent, and has been cited and quoted in publications such as Forbes, The Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post.