How to conquer the challenges of millennial miscommunication

How to conquer the challenges of millennial miscommunication

Have you ever felt like you're struggling to communicate with a whole generation of people in your workplace?

I recently had an interesting discussion about leadership communication with a senior leader of a small technology company. He attributed the challenges he was facing to the number of millennial leaders in his organisation. All his departmental leaders were millennials and, in his opinion, they were struggling to lead.

Hidden Assumptions

When leaders use generic, collective nouns for people inside their organisation, I feel compelled to dig a little deeper and find out why. These terms can be a helpful short-cut, but they also imply a kind of binary exclusivity – you’re either one of these or you’re not. This can close down some lines of communication. 

Generic terms are also linked with a range of assumptions that can deeply affect the way people behave towards one another. For example, if you assume someone will be tardy, you’ll be on the look-out for the times they come in late, to confirm your opinion.

Quite often, the hidden assumptions of an organisation’s culture hold back its ability to discuss challenges openly. This can negatively affect performance. Hidden assumptions can reinforce rather than resolve issues.

The fact they are ‘hidden’ means these assumptions don’t show up in explicit feedback, such as employee engagement surveys.

Millennials in the workplace

Of course, this wasn’t the first time I’d faced this opinion from a senior leader. To be honest, I’ve read plenty of research on generational difference in the workplace with great interest. Not because it helps to pigeon-hole people, but because it helps to uncover the reasons for the assumptions and to understand different perspectives.  

For example, consider how teaching methods and attitudes to assessing achievement in schools and colleges have changed over the generations. It then becomes clear that expectations of learning and recognition in the workplace will have changed too.

The millennial generation is broadly accepted as those who were born roughly in the decade from 1983. The most popular commentary on the millennial experience of the workplace is arguably from Simon Sinek. He describes his take on the outcomes of a millennial style upbringing in a widely-viewed interview on Inside Quest, now shared online (here’s a link if you’d like to see it).

Sinek describes how millennials have entered a workplace that is savvy to the need for perks and purpose, but starved of skilled leadership and adequate role models. He acknowledges that their relative impatience leads them to neglect the slow processes of both relationship-building and career-building.

Millennial miscommunication

Obtaining more specific descriptions from our leader in the technology enterprise helped to unpack the assumptions. His millennials weren’t intentionally brought in as leaders. They were the original employees of the fledgling company. As the business grew, they had to recruit team members and assume leadership roles, before they had time to develop leadership skills. 

In fact, in his view, they hadn’t properly developed the skills of managing their own work priorities. He described how his direct reports “view leadership as the ability to paint a compelling picture of their vision and purpose, and nothing more.” They seemed to view management as an historic skill – the precursor to modern leadership, before processes were automated. They were reluctant to hold constructive conversations about performance expectations or improvement.


I’ve written previously about how culture is affected when a start-up scales to become a larger organisation. You can read about it here.

business meeting reviewing communications document collaborating


Issues started surfacing. Some of the teams formed into edgy silos. The more approachable teams started picking up other people’s tasks and became overwhelmed. One of the leaders issued an edict by email to the whole organisation that nobody should trespass into her work area or try to speak with her contacts.

 Important tasks were dropped and deadlines missed, as people took more time out to complain about the lack of collaboration.

Communication was patchy and the culture of the organisation was suffering.

Changing this dynamic requires senior leaders to examine their assumptions.

The change imperative

Changing this dynamic requires senior leaders to examine their assumptions. They need to engage more positively with the generation they view as entitled and unwilling to get their hands dirty with management. There are very good reasons for them to develop an appetite to do this. 

It’s worth considering that a shift in approach and expectations will be commonplace throughout the next decade. Data in a recent report on Millennial Careers by the Manpower Group shows this generation will make up over a third of the global workforce by 2020. 

 The Manpower report confirms the popular view that millennials value recognition and affirmation more than previous generations, and there are more optimistic messages. For example, 73% of millennial respondents are working more than 40 hours per week, with a quarter of them working over 50. 


adaptive leadership

This is a generation that values learning.

The most anticipated requirement for career advancement amongst millennials is to improve their own skills and qualifications. An impressive 93% see ongoing skills development as important. Their primary motivation to stay with a current employer is increased pay or a bonus, but their second would be ‘a new challenge or promotion’. 

Looking ahead to Gen Z

The effect of increased automation coupled with the rise in millennials moving into leadership roles is explored by Gwen Moran, in  7 Skills Managers Will Need in 2025, She describes how these factors are driving a rapid pace of flux in the workplace. Leaders who can quickly adapt to technological changes and evolving relationships will be more successful.

The skills Moran predicts leaders will need include the ability to create a coherent culture across ‘non-traditional teams’. Tolerance of constructive debate amongst increasingly diverse teams will be required. As will the emotional intelligence needed for greater empathy with millennials and with Gen Z employees, who will shortly enter the workplace too.

Workplaces are evolving to meet changing expectations. A senior leader at Rombourne, a company that provides virtual offices explains, “Modern employees are seeking workplaces that provide flexible space for growth and up to date technology. They want to be able to work alongside a variety of people with digital and business expertise.” Younger employees have  greater expectation that employers will take steps to encourage personal wellbeing. The team at Ashbourne Management Services, who work with gyms and fitness providers, have noticed a rise in employers promoting lunch-time workouts and providing shower and changing facilities to improve productivity and engagement.

Conquering your challenges

When faced with an apparently unsolveable communications challenge, it’s always worth examining the basic assumptions you’re making. I find this is best achieved when you are genuinely curious about the situation, its causes and its range of possible remedies. It’s easier to work this out through a combination of open dialogue and real data. It also pays to ‘scan the horizon’ if you want to stay ahead of the inevitable changes each generation brings.

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