4 Strategies to Connect With Millennials
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It's not bad. It's not good. It's different.
I started teaching undergraduate communication courses in 2004. During my 11-year tenure, I saw a major shift in the way students approach education, communicate with faculty and staff, and interact with learning content. As it was happening, I didn’t have a label for this shift. Now I do: Millennial.
Many companies simultaneously fear and are in-awe-of the millennial generation, and those that follow. This makes sense. The unknown is scary. On the surface, it is easier to judge the differences and assign negative connotations to this population than to understand how the differences can, in fact, make a positive difference. And when millennials first started entering the workforce, this was the status quo.
Except now the millennial workforce isn’t unknown. In 2020 millennials will account for 50% of the US workforce. On average, millennials stay in a company for two years. This high turnover cost is negatively impacting many organizations’ bottom line.
Joris Luijke, VP of People at Grovo, sums it up nicely: “The world has changed over the past 15 years. That doesn’t mean that humans change. It means that people’s behaviors do.”
So how do we transition how we communicate to meet the needs and behaviors of this growing and influential population? How do we keep talented millennials longer than the two year average? And what strategies can we use to increase the effectiveness of intergenerational working relationships?
The reality is, if you want to retain talent, you need to meet people where they're at and build from a place of mutuality. Here are four communication strategies for communicating to millennial employees.
1. What’s in it for them?
Often referred to as the “Me” generation, millennials want to know what’s in it for them. Millennials just don’t want to have a job, they want to have a job with an impact.
“The need for opportunities and the pathways to success are becoming more and more important,” says Rachel Nathanson, Training and Development Manager for MSLGROUP. “Employers need to speak from a position of what they have to offer and be transparent about that up front. Make it clear that any employees who wants to get involved can get involved.”
Knowing what’s in it for them is not the self-serving question it may seem—it’s a question of purpose and being tied to something that they have a real stake in.
“Millennials want to feel like they’re impacting the community—and feel like the company cares, and isn’t just about making a profit. [Businesses need to] communicate the impact that employees are having on a daily basis on their teams, their managers, their CEO, their company, their customers, and the world,” states Dan Schawbel, Partner and Research Director at Future Workplace.
2. Feedback is a two-way street.
Gone are the days of one-way, linear communication from a supervisor to an employee. This top-down approach to communication is no longer effective as a sole messaging approach. To build a strong and satisfied millennial workforce, the art of giving—and receiving—feedback needs to change. Feedback is now a two-way street, and the frequency with which feedback is given needs to increase.
“Annual performance reviews are no longer sufficient. Millennials want at least quarterly reviews and regular feedback. And not just with one-way feedback. Millennials want the opportunity for two-way feedback. They don’t only want to know how they’re doing, but they also want to be able to tell the manager how he or she is doing,” says Schawbel.
One tool for achieving both of these goals is used by Pernod-Ricard, “Reflektive, a program we’re piloting, sits within Outlook as an app that our employees can use to give real-time, effective feedback. We're working on changing the dialogue on how we give ongoing feedback and really put focus on our feedback culture,” Calvin Ng, Learning and Development Manager.
3. Put good news first.
Previous generations prefer to get the bad news over with first, leaving the good news for the end. The opposite is true when giving millennials feedback.
“Millennials want the positive before the negative. ‘Here are the great things you did on X, and here is some way to make it even better’,” says Schawbel.
And when it comes to positive feedback, the “if everything is going well you won’t hear from me” management approach is not effective. Being proactive with positive feedback is important, and enabling employees to provide this feedback for each other is too.
“When you think about how you feel when you get positive feedback, it makes sense for peer feedback to make you feel great. Your mom is supposed to give you positive feedback, your boss is supposed to give you positive feedback, but when your peer does it, especially when they don’t have to, it feels the best,” says Luijke.
4. Give clear direction and give access.
Wow. Did I learn this the hard way when I was teaching! If there is anything in an instruction that is open to interpretation, it will be interpreted in a different way than you intended. That isn’t always a bad thing, as the best innovations can come from these varied interpretations, and many times my class culture changed for the better as a result.
But if you need something done in a specific way, be specific. Confirm mutual understanding. And when the employee does exactly what you’ve directed, give reinforcing positive feedback.
If you’re open to alternative ideas, encourage them. “This is the way we’ve always done it” isn’t a good reason to keep doing it.
Part of what millennials want is to understand pathways to success. Give access, and give clear direction on how to pursue these opportunities. Use stories and mentoring to communicate these directions instead of bulleted lists and context-less content.
When it comes to millennial communication, remember: It's not bad. It's not good. It's different.