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How to raise millennials in the workplace

As they hire and develop new talent, companies have to offset the influence of well-meaning “concierge parents.”

There’s a new book that should be on the bookshelf of every parent — and every leader. How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, by Julie Lythcott-Haims, is a wake-up call for well-off, well-meaning parents to do less for their kids so their kids can do more in life. It also sounds the alarm for leaders who must prepare themselves to finish the parenting that is not occurring in many homes.

The kids aren’t quite all right — and it’s largely the fault of their parents. Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advisor at Stanford University, notes that parents in the United States with “financial resources, social capital, and [a] sheer amount of time” have been impeding their children’s development of grit and resilience, skills that are critical to success in life and in work. This “concierge parenting,” as Lythcott-Haims calls it, shields kids from adversity and struggle and in the process creates young adults who “become exquisite, like orchids, yet are incapable…of thriving in the real world on their own.” In a 2007 research study Lythcott-Haims cites, only 16 percent of adults 18 to 25 years old felt they had reached adulthood based on self-selected criteria including: accepting consequences for actions, establishing an adult relationship with parents, being financially independent, and determining values and beliefs.  

Lythcott-Haims adds to the growing body of research and analysis of millennials, the group of people born after 1980. They now comprise the largest demographic cohort in the U.S. and their influence and impact in the workplace is growing. The author argues that these overparented young adults tend to:

·      Pursue their parents’ dreams rather than their own. Lythcott-Haims reports that “when seeking a job, all they can basically say to a prospective employer is, ‘Mom and Dad want me to do this.’”

·      Allow parents to micromanage their job search. Lythcott-Haims cites research showing that 23 percent of employers in a survey “reported seeing parents ‘sometimes’ to ‘very often’ when hiring a college senior.” Parental involvement included activities such as “obtaining information on a company,” “submitting a resume on behalf of a student,” and “advocating that their son/daughter obtain a position or salary increase.”

·      Doubt their own “ability to complete tasks and reach goals.” As a result, they are, Lythcott-Haims says, “more likely to be dependent on others, engage in poor coping strategies and lack the soft skills, like responsibility and conscientiousness, that employers value.”

In many ways, Lythcott-Haims’s work compliments that of Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age. Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues that millennials reared on screens often experience anxiety regarding face-to-face interactions. “Employers report that [millennials] come to work with unexpected phobias and anxieties,” Turkle writes. “They don’t know how to begin and end conversations. They have a hard time with eye contact.” Worse, despite widespread beliefs to the contrary, millennials’ hyper-connectivity doesn’t improve their performance. “Multitasking degrades our performance at everything we do, all the while giving us the feeling that we are doing better at everything,” she writes.

What is to be done? In order to prepare kids for the real world, Lythcott-Haims recommends that parents adopt a demanding yet responsive “authoritative” style. Parents should combine high standards, expectations, and accountability in an environment that is emotionally warm, responsive, and allows children the “freedom to explore, fail, and make their own choices.”

This parenting style is consistent with what is now considered effective leadership. But leaders have to be persistent, consistent, and patient as they work with millennials — even when it seems like overkill. The following table outlines what I view as some real-world millennial leadership challenges, and contrasts the way leaders may want to respond with the way they should respond.

Challenge You may want to… But you should…
A recruit doesn’t let you know he is going to be in town and available for an interview.

Write him off, assuming that if he wanted the job, he would have called.

Let him know why he should have called, and then schedule a phone interview.
A sales rep seeks a new responsibility and then, after a few months, decides she doesn’t like it. Tell her to stick it out. Help her learn from her experience and think through the pros and cons of various options.
A young manager agrees to aggressive targets but is unable to develop a plan on how to accomplish them. Tell him to get his plan done. Teach him how to create a plan.
A creative professional complains about a decision that was made without her input. Discount her concerns because the decision isn’t directly related to her job. Listen to her frustration and share the rationale behind the decision.

A top performer responds in a deadpan fashion when given a large raise.

Write him off as ungrateful.

Ask him for the rationale behind his behavior and coach him on how to communicate more effectively.

Again, this may seem like pandering. But companies are changing their cultures, policies, and leadership to accommodate the large numbers of millennials who are filling up their cubicles and open-plan offices. “Because I said so,” doesn’t fly any more successfully in the 21st century workplace than it does in the 21st century home. And leaders are finding that investing in a new style of leadership can pay dividends. Lythcott-Haims quotes a senior talent executive at a large professional services firm who notes that millennials “will deliver in an extraordinary way” providing they have interesting and challenging work, understand business context and expectations, and are empowered to act.

Rather than baby young workers, or continue the concierge parenting to which they have become accustomed, I believe leaders can connect and inspire them by tapping into their strengths and improving their weaknesses.

·      Connect their work to a higher purpose. Based on a 2012 study by Net Impact, 72 percent of college students feel that having a job that makes a “positive social or environmental impact is very important or essential to their happiness.”

·      Learn how to develop tactical plans. Because of their “checklisted childhood,” — i.e., the fact that parents lay out a specific set of experiences and objectives kids must achieve in order to get into the right schools and career paths — it can be very difficult for millennials to define the steps to meet an objective.

·      Experience good suffering. In line with authoritative parenting, leaders should let millennials muddle through trial-and-error opportunities so they can develop self-efficacy and develop confidence in their capabilities.

·      Develop empathy and build relationships. Sherry Turkle reports that, due to millennials’ preference to text rather than talk, empathy levels have declined 40 percent over the past 20 years. Leaders can help millennials put technology in its proper place by defining “technology-free” times and locations in order to reinforce face-to-face communications.

·      Increase self-awareness and learn from others. Millennials are, as a group, incredibly receptive to coaching and mentoring. So recruit others to assist in “parenting” them on the job.

To help their children succeed in the real world, Lythcott-Haims advises parents to “balance warmth with strictness, direction with freedom.” Leaders should follow suit in order to finish the job left undone by concierge parenting.

Susan Cramm

Susan Cramm, leadership coach, author, and former CFO and CIO, is committed to the principle that the best leaders take care of business by taking care of the people entrusted to their care.


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