Why Millennials Aren't Great at Delivering Bad News

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Yesterday, Tumblr made headlines for the way it announced firing some employees. The founder and CEO, David Karp, wrote a post lavishing praise on them and then slipping in at the end that they were no longer needed and would be moving on. Many people weren't happy about this and accused the company of "sugary knifework," double speak and trying to be overly transparent by way of apologizing profusely.

Another possible explanation is that millennials are simply not good at delivering bad news. Karp was born in 1986, putting him right in the middle of the adult segment of the millennial generation (the group born 1979-2000). At 26 he's already accomplished more than many people three times his age. If he's anything like the majority of his generation however, then he is inexperienced in giving direct feedback that doesn't include lavish amounts of praise.

Let's unpack that a bit more: people from the millennial generation are also known as the trophy kids because they were taught that everyone was a winner. Blue ribbons were handed out simply for showing up to practice and if your team actually won a game you had to share the spotlight with the "last winners" (or the losers as they're called by everyone else). They were taught that everyone was a VIP and they expect excellence both from everyone and for everyone.

On top of all that, the educational system taught students in groups (with desks arranged in "pods") and projects couldn't be turned in until everyone on the team had voiced their opinion. Not pulling your weight didn't just impact your grade, it hurt everyone else's as well. With teamwork as the goal, if bad news had to be given or a dissenting opinion shared, students were encouraged to do so via slipping in what they didn't like with all the things they did. The "compliment sandwich" was a hugely popular method: give a compliment, then a note on the "area for improvement," then another compliment.

What yesterday's story so clearly illustrates is that bad news is bad news no matter how many compliments precede it. If this practice of hiding bad news in praise comes across as detrimental, it's because it often is. While the intentions behind teaching this type of teamwork may have been good and focused on keeping the peace, it typically cuts off real conversation. Many millennials are now learning the hard way as adults that peace keeping and peace making are two different things and that the first is often nothing more than a facade.

Breaking millennials of a habit they've been practicing for 20-30 years (a habit they were taught to practice by Boomer parents and Gen X teachers) isn't going to happen overnight. Millennials are currently the largest generation alive and the most entrepreneurial. With more and more startups being led by people in their twenties and early thirties, getting things done in a productive way is going to require a willingness to understand where this group is coming from rather than a public lashing that does nothing to get to the root of the issue.

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