Connecting with Millennials in the Workplace

I was asked a great question recently from a Baby Boomer about connecting with Millennials in the workplace and at home. He wanted to know how he could get them to better communicate with him face-to-face and stop relying on devices - “How do I get them to put the phones down and talk to me.”

I gave the shortest and most straightforward answer I could in the moment (and also directed him to Simon Sinek's take on this). But I also want to take some time to explore the question and answer more deeply. There is a lot to explore and it’s appropriate to give it the required space.

I’m going to do a little role-play in applying the traits of a mindful leader — self-awareness, awareness of others and focusing on what’s important — to help us find the best course of action in getting on the same page. In this case, I'm the leader who’s having trouble connecting with a younger person. Full disclosure: I’m technically a millennial, which makes this extra fun.

Context: We’re in a face-to-face meeting, either individually or in a group setting. My Millennial counterpart is interacting with their phone and I perceive them as disengaged from the conversation.

Here are some ways I can approach things with mindfulness.

Self-Awareness

1. I can apply self-awareness by examining what I'm bringing to the conversation — my assumptions, biases, feelings, etc.

When I look closely, I might see some thoughts pop up like:

“It’s so rude to be looking at your phone when someone is talking to you. This new generation just doesn’t know how to communicate. They should listen to what I have to say; I have so much I could teach them if they just listened. But they don’t care about any ideas except their own. Entitlement. That’s what it is. And what’s so important on there anyway?”

Yikes. That is some loaded internal chatter.

And I can imagine how I’d feel if someone walked into a conversation with me holding on to those kinds of thoughts and feelings. I’d be on the defensive immediately, even if they had something really valuable to offer me, because their tone would give them away.

This recognition of my biases doesn’t mean they’re right or wrong, and that isn’t really the point. Rather, it’s a piece of information that I can use to improve how I approach the interaction. It’s obvious I intend to make an argument about the importance of face-to-face conversation, eye contact, etc. and I need to do it in a relatable way. I can also choose to look more deeply into those held beliefs later on (or this simple practice might help me release a few right away), but in this current conversation it’s enough to just become aware of their existence.

Once you see the thoughts for what they are, can you change your approach to the conversation?

2. I can identify the things that cause an emotional response when we interact. Then I can choose how I’ll respond to them in the future.

I deeply enjoy making eye contact in conversation. It’s natural for me and I think it helps me understand and connect with other people. And some people really don’t like it. Prolonged eye contact might make them feel anxious and insecure, producing a felt response in their body. Neither preference is right or wrong.

If I pay attention to my own internal responses to interacting with this coworker, I can recognize the actions that trigger something for me. Maybe they check their phone right when I’m making an important point. Maybe they’re slow to respond to a question and I think they’re distracted. Maybe they don’t turn to face me as I expect.

What emotions are triggered for you? Where do you feel them and when?

3. I can be honest about the times I share in that behavior. No matter our age, all of us fall trap to our devices. It’s human nature. 

Once I'm open to accepting my own behavioral imperfections, I might be able to find a way to talk openly with my Millennial coworker about how I feel when I get sucked into my devices. Maybe I can share the story of my partner being annoyed when I played Candy Crush at dinner. Or how I now find myself photographing all of my food when I go out.

If we’re on a level playing field, it might be easier to have productive dialogue instead of me lecturing. We can both feel a little better understood.

What similarities do you share and what can you learn from them? How can they build a bridge?

4. I can also be honest about the ways in which my devices provide great benefits to my life.

Let’s be honest, most of us couldn’t go a day without our phones. Parents say that they always need to be available in case their kid isn’t OK (although we went thousands of years without being imminently available and kids turned out fine). When I moved to Hartford, I literally would have been lost all of the time without my phone, as I relied on GPS to get me everywhere.

Can you recognize our collective reliance on technology and reframe your own judgments about it? Can you find space for differences?

Awareness of Others

1. I can take a minute to recognize the environment they were raised in. They have a different relationship with technology than me.

The vast majority of the millennial generation grew up on computers. They only know a life of internet connection. They’ve been texting since they could drive (or even earlier). As someone in the older generation, I relate to this need for digital connection differently than they do. Just like my parents struggled to keep up with rapid changes in media and technology when I was growing up (only now, it’s happening at a much faster clip).

And, millennials didn’t create this world. In fact, we did. Our generation built the cell phones they got as kids. We pushed technology capabilities that make the internet as powerful as it is today. We demand lighter and faster iPhones every year, just like the younger folks.

We’re all in this together.

Can you get them to open up about their experiences communicating with others so you can get more background on how they view technology and its role in their lives? How can you better understand their environment as a leader?

2. I can remember my responsibility to recognize the strengths of my team.

If I jump to the conclusion that they can’t communicate with others, I’ve eliminated the possibility of them using their personal gifts successfully. I’ll act in a way that’s guaranteed to prove my assumptions correct, by treating them in a certain way or giving them work that leads to me being right.

I’m denying them a chance to communicate in a way that’s different from my ideal image. I’m denying them a chance for growth.

As a leader, my primary job is to put the right person in the right spot so that they can grow to the maximum extent possible. Maybe I can put them on a new project where their perspective can prove valuable. Maybe they just need feedback delivered differently than me. 

Are you matching your talent to the right roles and responsibilities? Are you using the right approach as a manager?

3. I can recall my role as a leader is to inspire growth and greatness, rather than to push for my personal values to be tightly followed.

There is an immense amount of self-awareness required to step back and recognize when I’m demanding that others follow my rules simply because I want it that way. And yet, I can take this step.

I believe people do great work because they believe in Why they’re doing it — because they’re committed to the vision and values of the organization. If our values reinforce interpersonal communication, I can articulate them in a way that my coworker understands. That’s real leadership.

Do you know if they’ve ever received formal feedback or coaching? How can you counsel them, as opposed to demanding that they change? Can you inspire them to grow?

Focus

1. I can remind myself of exactly why we’re doing the work we do and that it’s bigger than any of us alone.

When I know I’m right, I sometimes dig in with fervor. To the extent that I forget why it even mattered in the first place. (Unfortunately, I often know I’m right, until I turn out to be not-quite-right.)

But if I can escape this need to be proven correct or to have everyone agree with me, I can get back to the reason we’re here: To do great work and fulfill our organization’s Why.

Disagreements happen. Differences in styles are inevitable because we’re all different. If I remain hung up on those things, we won’t ever get the hard work done that will produce real results.

What can you do to reconnect with your Why? How can you help everyone to stay in alignment with it? 

2. I can remain focused on the present moment — my interactions in the meeting and the original purpose of our discussion.

It can be easy to get pulled away from the reason for the two of us talking in the first place and to become stuck on something that I want to change. But right now might not be the time and place to bring up my criticisms or feedback.

As the leader, it’s my responsibility to hold us both accountable for sticking to our purpose in each moment, making sure we’re working toward our goal instead of being sidetracked.

If I can remain focused on the present moment, I am also more likely to find opportunities to connect. If I’m stuck ruminating on how I want things to go differently, I lose the ability to find ways to connect as things are now. Maybe this time I have to repeat myself multiple times and I feel like we’re wasting time. That is something I can note to discuss in the future, while remaining focused on today’s purpose.

Where are your thoughts? Are you in the present moment, responding to what’s currently happening? What’s your anchor when things start to unravel? 

Relating to coworkers from different generations can’t be accomplished with a magic wand. (The same goes for people in our own generation.) But if we can practice mindfulness in our interactions, becoming more self-aware and focused on what brings us together, we can often find common ground.

Keep working. And good luck.