By Dobbie Newman and Kayle Graham



As an individual who sits on the very tail end of the Boomer generation and as a parent of two Millennials, I have shared many of the same perspectives as my peers in both the Boomer and Gen X demographic. Generational conflict is not new. The Boomers were considered rebels by most of my parents’ peers. I remember how frustrated my father was with the “new music” (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan) and how furious he was when my brother grew his hair long and had a full beard.

The Millennials have a pretty good perspective on the stereotypes that chase them. In fact, last month’s article shed light on how well they understand the stereotypes, providing some insights that clarify their views and desires.

Successful leaders have learned how to build bridges between generations to truly harness the value that Millennials bring to the workplace. It is important to recognize that as their parents, we raised this generation to be exactly who they are.

The parents of Boomers were coming out of the depression era. Many of us who were born within the decade following World War II, had parents who were fiscally conservative, worked hard and sought prosperity and security for their children. Boomers kept their heads down and worked hard, driven to stay employed. Many Boomers, like their parents, sought to work for the same company their entire careers. Promotions were earned, not requested.

“Keep your head down, work hard, and good things will come your way.”

On average, Millennials, grew up in more prosperous homes than their parents, and tend to live at home longer. As a result they have been more flexible and entrepreneurial than their parents. Job loss is less risky because they have the safety net of moving back home.


We taught our children that:

  • they are special – they can be whatever they want to be and are highly capable
  • everyone gets a trophy when you play on a team
  • they should speak up and ask for what they want
  • they should make sure they are passionate about how they choose to spend their time
  • technology matters


So it not surprising that we hold some common beliefs that are a product of their upbringing. We have summarized four of these stereotypes and have also offered some bridge building suggestions that were provided by our interviewees and from other 3rd party research on the topic.


1. Millennials tend to be more sensitive and empathetic than Boomers – They want to work for companies with a purpose and they desire to be connected to that purpose. They seek transparent communication and constant positive reinforcement.

  • Purpose driven work – Millennials who can afford to, prioritize social conscience above work for pay. For this group community and common purpose is important. Most of us, from every generation, have causes that we care about. We just haven’t all connected that with our time spent at work. Companies that have successfully combined the two have been able to hire and engage this generation. When they feel connected Millennials are able to achieve and succeed at exemplary levels.
  • Instant feedback – This generation grew up with likes and ª’s in reaction to their every post. Knowing that expectation for instant feedback exists, the savvy manager creates an effective feedback loop by having a conversation with new team members up front. Establish a cadence that is acceptable to both manager and employee. Have regular check-in meetings where an opportunity for feedback is possible. Of course, this is good advice for how to manage a team member from any generation.


2. Millennials seem entitled – Many Millennials have approached their managers with comments like: “I’ve been here for 6 months, how come I’m not getting x or y?” They also grew up with and are used to instant gratification:


“People are used to things happening at a different pace — with amazon, things arrive tomorrow.”


 “I had a millennial in our department who left us because my door wasn’t open enough….”


Improved two way communication can be a remedy for these challenges.

  • Many Boomers believed that promotions were a gift from management for undying loyalty, hard work and obedience. On the other hand, Millennials look for a direct link between performance and reward. Unless specifically told otherwise, they may expect rewards just because they demonstrate “high potential”. Set clear expectations up front to ensure everyone understands exactly what must be demonstrated to receive a promotion. Be as transparent as possible regarding what is measured, what results are expected, and in what time frame. Provide regularly scheduled performance reviews, being sure to discuss job growth and learning opportunities.
  • Additionally, it can be beneficial to ask questions about what is behind an employee’s desire for a promotion or a reward. Ask them. What is driving their need? Is it massive student debt? Are they struggling to meet basic costs? Or do they have unrealistic expectations regarding potential rewards and what is required to earn them? They may simply have a very different perspective from you and you need to correct any misperceptions. It is important for the employee to understand the rules. It is equally important that the manager follow those rules consistently and fairly. A manager who understands what is driving employees’ needs can make better decisions about how to help or motivate those employees.

Poor or inconsistent communication can also cause employee turnover.

  • Evaluate, if you are encouraging active communication with each team member, sharing clear expectations up front and providing consistent regular feedback.
    • For example: “I am so busy that it’s important for you to speak up and tell me what you’d like to experience as part of your development.”
    • Give them opportunities to speak up that accommodate their styles – online sign-ups, posted sign-up sheets, or texts are ways to preserve manager time and still help the most introverted team members to fulfill their development needs.
  • Establish active feedback loops.
    • Conduct employee exit interviews – seek to determine the root cause, not the surface statement to explain why employees left.
    • Gather employee feedback through blind opinion surveys. Using a third party to conduct the survey ensures anonymity and increases the likelihood of receiving objective and candid feedback. If you find yourself with unusually high turnover, digging a little deeper and asking the right questions can shed light on the root causes. Armed with good data you can prevent unwanted turnover.                     


3. We perceive Millennials to be less driven – they want to play games at work, get free food, coffee bars and beer on tap, have flexible hours, and change jobs too often.

  • Work and play are more fluid for Millennials. Also, their definition of how best to work is different. Playing a round of pool with a colleague while discussing ideas or solving problems may be a more natural approach for Millennials. If this is not possible or palatable in your place of work, seek an alternative solution.
  • Have a walking meeting; turn a project into a game or challenge.
  • Discuss a project over lunch, hold building events, or provide a free lunch that can bring people together over a meal. Not only will this help your team connect and communicate, it will also help to increase satisfaction overall. The expense of a free meal now and then may mean taking a look at the budget, but ultimately it will cost you less than hiring new employees. Reduced turnover may justify the cost.
  • Consider an investment in your work environment. For example upgrading to a modern workspace (glass walls that can be used as whiteboards, fun chairs, like beanbags) to create a more engaging space. It doesn’t have to be an office-wide overhaul, but renovating a floor, a section, or a room, depending on your company’s size and budget, could inspire a more innovative, engaging workflow that will keep people interested and invested in their workplace activities.
  • Create connections. Do things together like participating in community service, attending relevant conferences, etc.

Sometimes the best kind of team-building is the kind that doesn’t feel like team building at all. Doing something together, bonding without the stressors and formalities of the office, can encourage people to get to know one another. The team can learn to communicate and build a new rhythm. You may not notice major changes at first, but once people begin to understand each other on a basic level, they will become more comfortable in their interactions. They can talk more casually and focus on projects without fear of saying the wrong thing, or worrying about unintended negative impacts of interpersonal tension. 


4. It seems like Millennials are not paying attention – they are on their phones even when there are deadlines to meet.

  • To Millennials a cell phone is a connection tool that helps them during discussions. They might use it to look up a data point, calculate something, check on a request, or contact a key team member through a text. They may see it as an extension of themselves.
    • There are times when a cell phone is not appropriate even for those from earlier generations. Boomers and Gen Xers alike have been guilty of accessing a cell phone during interviews. When conducting a job interview, the interviewer should turn off their phone and focus on the candidate. Even leaving a phone on the table is not appropriate. It signals to a candidate that you are not fully engaged, and that something else may be more important to you.
    • Many Millennials may feel like they were born with a cell phone in their hand. As such, they may not understand what they may perceive as an arbitrary rule about phone use in the workplace. In many cases, it is highly likely that they had no intention to offend, and just did not know that they were being disrespectful. Managers need to provide workable rules and process for cell phone use that is fair and makes priorities clear. For example, when a customer is present focus on the customer and let the phone wait.
    • While it is important to explain this to avoid future millennial misunderstandings it is also important to realize that they may be completely unaware of the issue. It may be best to overlook the first instance of inappropriate cell phone use and take the opportunity to pass on some workplace wisdom.


In Conclusion

There are many different viewpoints held by Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials alike. As with many societal challenges, two-way communication and openness can be the key to unlocking a more productive and successful work environment. We recommend that each generation embrace the benefits that others bring to the table. That begins with giving others the benefit of the doubt. Start with respect and learn to build trust.

A key learning for us from this research – Due to the nature of the current workplace (more jobs than talent available to fill them) coupled with the Millennial’s comfort level with job change, unhappy Millennials simply quit. And they may not bother to explain why as they may not perceive that effort will make a difference. So, if there is a generational problem in your workplace, only the manager or business owner can make a course correction. Some of the Boomers and Gen Xers we interviewed have been successful in adapting to the generational differences. We have just shared some of that practical advice above. Understanding where people come from is the first step towards building bridges.