Building Trust with Millennials

Don’t look now, but the “millennials” are coming. Often disparaged as “techaholics” with a high WIIFM factor (what’s in it for me), the millennial, generation Y, echo boomers, or those born sometime after 1976, are changing the shape of the American workforce.

According to a recent NY Times article, the new kids on the block have a sense of entitlement;

Professor Marshall Grossman at the University of Maryland said, “I’ve come to expect complaints whenever I return English papers. Many students come in with the conviction that they’ve worked hard and deserve a higher mark.”

The sentiments are echoed by Sarah Kinn, a junior English major at the University of Vermont: “I feel that if I do all of the readings and attend class regularly that I should be able to achieve a grade of at least a B.”

I have noticed the same phenomenon in the course I teach at Loyola University. A disgruntled student who received a grade commensurate with the final product shifted the blame to me, saying, “Well, I guess it is in the syllabus, so you technically can give me a lower grade.”

How did they get this way? Michele Norris, a Tampa-based consultant, asserts, “If students have a sense of entitlement, it’s not entirely their fault. They are the product of “hovering” parents and an education system that is ‘results oriented’ to prove worthiness. Parents and coaches have rewarded them with trophies just for being on the team”.

According to Norris, millennials do have a great deal of self confidence. “The reality is that this generation is entering the workforce with the ability to multi-task, sort through vast amounts of information (the internet), and navigate the information age.”

John O’Neill, a millennial and senior business student at Loyola University, takes exception to the typical millennial line of thinking. “I am not a proponent of the "effort = quality" train of thought. In many situations, if an assignment can’t be completed on time or up to quality standards, no matter how much work was devoted, it should be considered a failure. “

Like John, not every millennial fits the stereotype. Alex and Brett Harris, authors of Do Hard Things: a Teenage Rebellion against Low Expectations tap into their faith and Biblical principles to combat the idea of adolescence as a “vacation from responsibility.”

With over 16 million hits to their website, they are leading the charge in a growing movement of young people who are rebelling against the low expectations of their culture by choosing to "do hard things."

“The world says, ‘You’re young, have fun!’ It tells us to ‘obey your thirst’ and ‘just do it.’ Or it tells us, ‘You’re great! You don’t need to exert yourself.’ But those kinds of mindsets sabotage character and competence,” says Harris.

Meanwhile, millions of millennials are merging into the market. How to integrate them into the workforce?

During a recent 60 Minutes interview with Morley Safer, Marian Salzman, an Ad Agency exec who has been tracking Millennials ever since they entered the workforce said, “You do have to speak to them a little bit like a therapist on television might speak to a patient," Salzman says, laughing. "You can’t be harsh. You cannot tell them you’re disappointed in them. You can’t really ask them to live and breathe the company. Because they’re living and breathing themselves and that keeps them very busy."

Faced with new employees who want to roll into work with their iPods and flip flops around noon, but still become a CEO by… Friday, companies are realizing that the era of the buttoned down exec happy to have a job is as dead as the three-Martini lunch.

How can we build trust with these narcissistic praise hounds now taking over the office?

Coach vs. Boss
"It’s the boomers that need to hear the message, that they’re gonna have to start focusing more on coaching rather than bossing. In this generation in particular, you just tell them, ‘You got to do this. You got to do this.’ They truly will walk. And every major law firm, every major company knows, this is the future," says Mary Crane, a millennial coach.

In order to be perceived as trustworthy, we must have a high “other” orientation. In the case of millenials, we need to speak their language. Be willing to lose the battles like wardrobe and time clocks, so long as they understand results matter.

Back Patting
They need more accolades. What does it cost to give it to them? Go ahead.

Give Trust to Get Trust
Lastly, to get trust, we must first give trust. Before we can expect them to understand and appreciate where we’re coming from, we must first take the time to make them feel understood.

But that’s just me; I welcome your thoughts!

5 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    I’m probably on one end of the continuum, but here’s how I see it.


    It’s not about managing millennials, it’s about managing expectations.


    When I managed teams, including millennials and millennial-type thinkers who were older, the first day on the job (mine and then theirs as they joined the team), was spent discussing expectations – mine, theirs and the organization’s. – values, what teamwork and collaboration looked like, what interfacing with clients looked like, what healthy and unhealthy competition looked like, what effective performance looked like, what open and honest communication and disagreement looked liked, etc.


    Along the way, those who needed support in these areas got it (I was also a certified coach at the time). Meet expectations and be a good citizen and you were fine. Otherwise, there were consequences. The last thing I said at every meeting of this type was, “Life is choices. So, it’s up to you to choose if you want to be here and how you want to be here.” There are benefits from choosing wisely; there are consequences from choosing not wisely.


    During the 21 years I taught university students, the same thing. Day one was the expectations discussion. One thing I mentioned was that if they took the final on day one, they would most likely fail.


    So, “everybody is starting this class with an “F” and it’s your responsibility to work your way up to the grade you want.” (no entitlements and getting an A because you walk and talk and have blood in your veins.) 


    Every class I taught centered around peer-mediated interaction, i.e, small groups. 30% of their grade was connected to how well they supported their group to achieve their group’s goals. If one of the group members choose (remember the “life is choices” piece) not to do their piece of the work, their other group members’ grades would suffer; on the other hand, group members who were doing their work would be expected to make their best attempt to motivate their colleague to seek to improve, to not simply complain about their colleague or ostracize him/her.


    So, on day one we discussed what cooperation and collaboration looked like, specifically how one could move from an F to a D, to a C, etc., etc. Details. Then, the “life is choices” — benefits and consequences piece.


    In all of this, there were no surprises. Everyone knew what was expected on Day 1.


    They could dress how they wanted within reason. They could listen to their music, etc. within reason. But the bottom line was they needed to be good “citizens” of the organization and the school, operate within the guidelines, enjoy flexibility within a structure, produce, perform and meet expectations if they wished to be successful. Not all chose to do so and they didn’t continue. Life is choices.


    So, to me, before trust, comes expectations. Then choices and commitment and then trusting that folks will adhere to the commitments they made. Then standing back and observing, coaching and supporting when and where required.


    It worked well for me and for most of the individuals with whom I was engaged. There was virtually no “age” issue, or generational issues. Folks who were younger and older achieved. Some folks who were younger and older chose to opt out. Me? I chalk it up to values, expectations and always knowing what you want, and knowing what healthy and unhealthy choices gain one. I never spoke, or speak, about age as the “issue.” It’s about character and values. But, as Charlie says, "that’s just me".


  2. Mark Slatin
    Mark Slatin says:


    As usual, very insightful thoughts.  I too spent reviewing each students expectations (and then mine) for the course on day one.  But I really love the idea of verbalizing that you start with an "F" and work your way to an "A".  That’s bold, but clear.  It’s like a magnet that everyone can draw back to.

    I actually had students in small project teams grade each other’s efforts in a survey; allocating percentage points to their peers points from a total pie of 100%.  In most cases, they split the pie into even pieces, eg. 4 team members each allocate 25% to each other.  On a rare occasion someone only gets a sliver; if that’s a consensus and their comments support their scores, it could mean a lower grade for the student who isn’t pulling their weight.

    I couldn’t agree more with the importance of setting expectations; after all we aren’t disappointed in life by what we get, we’re disappointed by what we expected we would get and the size of that gap.



  3. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Hi, Mark!  It is always a pleasure to read your work, here and at your home  blog.  (By the way, I sent you an email in December and I don’t think you got it; keep your eyes on your spam filter and I’ll send it again now.)

    I am fascinated by the discourse around millennials–the subtext is usually that they are a pain in the arse but must be unquestioningly coddled, and there seems to be a great deal of resentment and mistrust (!) on both sides.

    Peter, I always enjoy your comments but this one will stand out in my mind for a long time to come.  It is by far the best advice I’ve read on managing millennials, not as a special interest group, or as terrorist group holding a business hostage with unreasonable demands, but as adults who have every reason to respond well to the same kind of high-caliber management and fair setting of expectations that every other adult (and child) responds to well.  Superb job of reframing the debate–and putting it on a saner footing.

    . . .

    There was a stunning comment on this topic recently at Simple Justice, by law blogger Windypundit: "… I can’t see [millenials] finding much bargaining traction in this employment market."

    Part of my thesis research at university lead me into incidental reading on how bad economies lead to disporportionate loss of jobs for women.  (No, I don’t have links on hand; yes, the data is out there and well-documented for anyone interested.) I don’t want to derail this post with a discussion of gender politics, but I bring up the topic because I think the historic situation of women in the workplace unfortunately parallels the current situation of millenials in two ways:

    1. Women have  been perceived, and presented, as requiring "special  accommodations"–from maternity leave in the US to menstrual leave in Japan–and in an economic downturn, have been perceived as "less reliable" employees on this basis and therefore more expendable.

      The hallmark of millennials in the workplace is likewise a demand for accommodations not afforded their upperclassmates.

    2. Women have likewise been perceived / presented as workplace dilletantes–that their wages were supplementary to a male primary earner’s income, or "pin money," but that they weren’t autonomous economic agents. 

      (True life horror story: as recently as 1999, I was told by a manager that the company didn’t need to come through with the raise / promotion I had been guaranteed, because I had got engaged, so I could count on the "man in my life" for money and the company didn’t need to honour its promises or pay me (male) market value for my work.  At the same company, a manager in another department helpfully explained to me that the real earning is done by husbands, so it doesn’t make sense to promote women or pay them well because they don’t need the money in the same way a man does.)

      Another hallmark of the millenials has been that mommy and daddy will support them, kiss the booboos of life, and rush in to fill any shortfalls in their lives.  They are viewed as consumers but not as important earners.

    I am afraid that, for these reasons, Windypundit’s comment is an understatement, and that if the economic downturn continues as expected, millennials may find themselves branded, en masse, as a labour pool that is as inconvenient, undesireable, and dispensable as women. 

    I think that millennials may be in for a collective culture shock, and the implications of a severly culture shocked and unemployed generation are not pleasant. I really hope that projects like Rebelution succeed, and that more millenials seize the initiative of learning how to earn trust from their side of a workplace relationship, too.


  4. Ji Hyun Lee
    Ji Hyun Lee says:

    “You do have to speak to them a little bit like a therapist on television might speak to a patient," Salzman says,

    Not sure if this is really the best way to work with Millennials.  I think like most workers, Millennial expect to be acknowledged and appropriately rewarded.  For my exp. managing Gen-Y workers, they just want the same respect shown to other employees.  They seem to want what I wanted when I got out of college– a fulfilling job that is as equally rewarding for the employee as it is for the employer.

    Here is my take on working with Millennials.  Tips for managing the Millennial Generation.


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