Why Millennials Need So Much Praise and Feedback

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

There is a very popular management style that many leaders subscribe to. It can be summed up like this: "If I withhold praise, then my employees will work even harder to get my approval and working harder is a good thing because it means increased productivity." 

While this works for some — according to his biography, it was Steve Jobs' approach to managing Apple and rumor has it that it is Lorne Michaels' way of managing the team at Saturday Night Live — using this method on millennials tends to not just fall flat but can hurt your company on a much larger scale than it might have in the past.

Members of Generation X value personal achievement and if they don't receive positive feedback or praise, will typically work harder to seek that approval because "up" is perceived as the best way to get things done. For Xers, success is measured by a ladder, which goes either up or down. If you want things done and you want to get where you want to go, you focus on "working your way up" or "moving up." Many believe that you can get where you want without stepping on others in the process, but upward is still the direction of choice. Ladders go up, escalators go up, elevators go up. Glass ceilings get shattered, not walls. The top is the ultimate goal and the ultimate success is getting to share the fruits of your climb with the people you love.

Millennials (born 1979-2000), on the other hand see the world as a series of interconnected networks, and feel that a victory is not as sweet if it does not involve everyone on their team. Hierarchies represented by ladders hold little value to them. Millennials are not compelled to work upward to a more important level because they grew up being told they are important simply because they exist. They do, however, feel the need to be valued and appreciated as significant and as a member of the team. They need to know that the group could not function without them. Because of this, withholding praise and positive feedback does not entice a millennial to work harder for you. Instead it produces the opposite: "If they don't value what I do, why am I here? Does my work even matter? Life is too short to do something you don't love and to do work that doesn't make a difference. I'm going to go find a job where my contributions bring value and if that job doesn't exist I'm going to create it."

Don't be too quick to scoff at those last ten words. "Owner" is the fifth most popular job title among millennials on Facebook. These are not just fanciful dreams of the young. If your company does not supply what your millennial employees need (or feel they need, which to them is the same thing) they have no problem quitting, hanging out their shingle and becoming your competition. And because millennial clients do not care about age and do care about personality, they have no problem giving a younger, less experienced entrepreneur a chance if they "click" with them.

Millennials don't just crave individual praise, they take how you treat their network into account as well. This generation is known for being loyal to people, not to corporations. However, millennials are loyal to the leaders they love only to a point and much of it has to do with how you set up their peer network of colleagues. If you reward the people who treat you poorly but take the ones who are loyal to you for granted (oh, we don't need to worry about him, he's so easy to work with and will always be there for us), the "good kid" millennials will eventually get tired and leave, even if you give them some praise as well. They may not be focused on "up", but they are definitely not into staying on a team or in a network where their good behavior appears less valued than bad behavior simply because it's easier for the leader to deal with fixing the squeaky wheel. The "I don't need to say I love you to my kids because my children know I love them" approach doesn't work on this group.

This is not about pandering. Millennials have laser-focused BS detectors. Your praise and positive feedback has to be genuine and well-intentioned (if you can't think of anything nice to say to your millennial employees or colleagues, you might want to reevaluate if you have the right ones working for or with you). It also needs to happen on a regular basis, but it will not work if it comes across as merely an item to check off on your to-do list.

This also isn't to say that you can't give non-positive feedback when it is warranted. You can, and you should. However if your management style means speaking up only when there's a problem, then you will be creating a lot more problems for yourself and your company. For millennials, no news is not good news. No news is a non-starter and one that can easily be avoided by opening the lines of communication.

Originally published July 2012

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