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Why Should We Treat Millennials Differently?

I read an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal titled How the Rams Built a Laboratory for Millennials. Journalist Kevin Clark explains how the NFL's St. Louis Rams hired an education consultant to help coaches learn how to more effectively teach their young players who happen to be millennials. Coaches wanted to bridge the generation gap in order to improve communication.

Sounds like a smart idea. Let’s face it, every generation has trouble identifying with former and later generations. That’s mainly because we don’t share the same context during our formative years. Here are just a few examples:

  • Societal norms change (think equal rights).

  • Economic conditions change (my grandmother grew up in the Great Depression and it shaped her perspective and values for life).

  • Musical tastes change (What do Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Bee Gees, Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey have in common? They were the top artists of their respective decades of popularity).

  • Technology changes (the only smart phones we saw growing up were on Star Trek).

Because everything changes, each generation owns a special and unique background.

It is this quote from the article about the Rams’ perspective on their younger players that I found particularly interesting:

“They also need to know ‘why’ to everything: If you explain a concept to them on the field, they need to know the reason behind it. Millennial players questioning everything is something that’s helped the Rams, the team says, because it forces coaches and executives to examine their own methods (Why are we doing this?).”

I think it’s healthy to challenge the status quo from time to time to ensure we are not stuck with an outlook that no longer applies. Read my blog, Why Are We Doing This, for more on the topic.

More importantly, it’s not a “millennial thing” to want to understand how our work impacts the greater good of the organization… in this case the Rams football team. We all desire to do work with a purpose. The unhealthy approach was the old command and control line, “because I said so” or “just do it” (insert mean look here).

Millennials have been raised differently in that they feel empowered to ask why and they believe they are entitled to an answer. They want to know why they have been asked to do something… just like we wondered “why” when we were in our 20’s. The difference is in previous generations our elders didn’t feel obligated to give us a reason. Our spirit eventually broke and we stopped asking.

Before you label millennials the “entitled generation,” let me provide some perspective. Work without purpose or "busy work" has been used as a form of torture throughout history. It’s a powerful de-motivator. Prisoners have been made to hammer big rocks into rubble or move mounds of stones from one area to another and back again for no reason at all. The purpose of this was not only to make them perform strenuous and physically punishing activities, but to break their spirit.

An effective coach or business leader is a teacher not a prison warden. The goal is to educate and inspire young people to perform at their peak. Here’s the thing: it applies to everyone, not just millennials. We all want to know how our efforts contribute to the good of the organization. We want to know how we fit in and that we are making a difference. It is and has always been disrespectful to levy a command without explanation.

So, should we treat millennials differently? Of course not. We should all feel empowered to ask “why” and be entitled to an answer. Because as we learned from the Rams, asking why is an effective form of checks and balances that benefits the organization as much as the employee.


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