Give Millennials Constructive Feedback they will Hear and Use

April 24, 2017 | David Lee | HCI
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Millennials actually WANT feedback.

Based on research and interviews with Millennials, they want more from their managers – more than “constructive” feedback that is anything but “constructive”.

The research:

In a survey conducted by the authors of The 2020 Workplace, Jeanne Meister and Karie Willyerd, employees were asked to rank eight managerial attributes in terms of their importance to them. Millennials rated “will give me straight feedback” as the 2nd most important attribute, just after “will help me develop my career.”

When HR executives were asked to rate managers in their organization based on their expertise in these eight areas, “will give me straight feedback” came in last.

The importance of feedback from management was found to stretch across multiple age groups. In fact, when the authors combined survey responses from all generations, they found that this managerial attribute was the weakest link when it came to engaging employees. “Will give me straight feedback” had the largest gap between what all employees cared about most.

Knowing how to give constructive feedback is a challenge for many managers, but they often find the issue of giving feedback to Millennials the most vexing. Millennials are your Canaries in the Coal Mine. They want what other generations want in a work experience, but they’re more sensitive to not getting it. They are also more willing to leave an unsatisfying or toxic work experience than other generations.

Millennials tend to receive a good deal of TLC and interest from their parents and other significant adults in their lives so they have higher expectations of being treated well by their managers, which means receiving regular, useful feedback.

Members of the Gen X, Boomer, and Traditionalist generations will endure not getting feedback or having it delivered poorly, Millennials are less likely to do so. This means managers must learn how to give feedback effectively if they want to get the best work from this generation of employee.

How do you give feedback that’s truly constructive?

  1. Set “Feedback is a Way of Life Here” Expectation from the Outset  -  This is one of the biggest “differences that make the difference,” according to Heather Burroughs, who manages primarily Millennials. Burroughs manages college students. Because I was so impressed with what Burroughs shared at a management seminar, I ended up interviewing her and writing about her in What We Can Learn About Feedback from Managing Millennials (and Felons!). One of the most important things Burroughs and her fellow managers do at the library related to giving feedback is to let job applicants know right in the hiring interview that they can expect to get ongoing feedback - both positive and corrective - that will help them perform with excellence.
  2. Explain the Why  -  Millennials are more likely to have been raised by parents who explained their thought process and reasoning behind rules and decisions than previous generations who were likely to get “because I said so” as the explanation. Sometimes traditional managers balk at the idea of explaining the why, thinking that doing so means they are justifying themselves and convincing the employee to do something they should do without being prompted. Explaining the why is about engaging in smart communication. When the why makes sense to employees, they’re more likely to put their heart in the task, and make smarter decisions when working.
  3. Tell them what Excellence Looks Like  -  Communicating clearly with specific information is a major theme in my interviews with Millennials who compare managers who brought out the best in them with those that didn’t. For example, “that’s no good,” and “I don’t like the looks of that” are devoid of information about how to improve, and are useless and morale damaging.
  4. Be Direct and Drama-free when Correcting  -  Millennials in my interviews expressed universal appreciation for managers who were direct in communication about where they went wrong. They don’t want their manager to sugar coat or hide their displeasure in vagueness.

They were also very clear about resentment when managers spoke with a tone that was reminiscent of a parent disciplining their child with a stern, disapproving voice. Millennials, like all adults, feel resentful when talked at like they were a child.

To borrow from Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, managers who are “calm assertive” get their feedback heard and acted upon.

Burroughs identified this combination as being one of the primary reasons she is seen as “tough but fair” with “tough” meaning “high expectations that you are held accountable to.” For instance, if a student worker is talking with a friend rather than doing his work, she doesn’t silently judge him for having a poor work ethic, nor does she scold. She simply says in a calm, friendly tone of voice “Justin…can you wrap that up please?”

The next time a friend comes up to talk with Justin, he will say “Hey…can’t talk…I’m working…”

If regularly used, these four practices will go a long way in helping you deliver feedback in a way that gets heard and acted upon by your employees.