Contrary to popular belief, millennials won’t melt in the face of constructive criticism. When delivered thoughtfully, millennials have the capacity to see feedback for the gift that it is — but the key is knowing how to communicate with millennials tactfully when their performance doesn’t hit your standards.
Whether it’s addressed to millennials or not, delivering truly constructive feedback is a delicate skill that doesn’t come naturally to most. By considering some pillars of productive communication in combination with some of millennials’ key workplace expectations, you can learn how to communicate with millennials effectively in even the toughest situations.
This article will help you understand how to turn delivering negative feedback to millennials into a positive experience.
What You Need to Know about Millennials
The literature on millennials is deep, detailed, and seemingly endless. Being the most diverse generation to date, this group is characterized by a complex set of dynamics that include their fair share of contradictions. As we move through our discussion of how to communicate with millennials, keep in mind that we’re speaking generally. Of the 73 million people who belong to the millennial generation, there are many exceptions to the rules. Nonetheless, the group tends heavily towards certain defining characteristics.
Understanding millennials is a near-impossible task, and they certainly can’t be captured in the span of a couple paragraphs. However, to contextualize the discussion that will ensue around how to communicate with millennials, it’s critical to address a few generation-defining characteristics to help inform your understanding.
1. Millennials are Sensitive (and It’s Not a Bad Thing)
Other generations mean it as an insult: millennials are snowflakes. However, a closer look at the qualities that inspire other generations to liken millennials to a melting piece of ice reveal the statement to be not so negative after all.
It’s true that millennials are sensitive — but contained within this sweeping term are higher levels of empathy and compassion, a ready willingness to speak up about the quality of experiences (good and bad), and unprecedented reverence for emotional intelligence. Is it possible traits like these might actually be strengths, not weaknesses?
The answer is a resounding “yes.”
Because millennials have been taught (by other generations, no less) to value emotional information as highly as facts and logic, they bring a new set of expectations to workplace communication. Millennials are well aware of the harm inflicted by toxic management. They are rightfully wary of risks including burnout and compromised performance that arise in unsupportive working environments.
Millennials’ sensitivity might be more accurately characterized as a low tolerance for injustice, disrespect, and hostility. So, if learning how to communicate with millennials involves a drastic rethinking of your leadership approach, this reevaluation is almost certainly overdue and in both your and your employees’ best interest.
It has become increasingly apparent that the sensitivity millennials have been so frequently criticized for might actually be their biggest strength. Especially when learning how to communicate with millennials (and other generations), sensitivity encourages solutions that are healthier for all parties involved.
2. Millennials Are Hungry for Professional Growth
Another key quality to understand about millennials is their eagerness to climb the metaphorical ladder. They keep a constant eye out for professional growth opportunities.
This characteristic can be best understood as a consequence of their relationship to technology. The youngest millennials were introduced to texting and social platforms before they were teenagers, and the oldest ones harbor only fuzzy memories of the days before constant communication, when the world was markedly less transparent.
The world as millennials have known it for most of their lives is rife with social comparison. From peers publishing their latest achievements on LinkedIn, to the competition implicit in tallied likes and follower counts, millennials measure their own accomplishments against their peers’ without a second thought.
As a result, millennials feel constant pressure to keep up. Thankfully, this desire to improve can be strategically leveraged as an advantage when leaders learn how to communicate with millennials constructively.
3. Millennials Need Frequent Feedback
If millennials are hungry for professional growth, they’re downright starving for feedback. And similar to the former desire, millennials’ seemingly insatiable craving for feedback is in large part a response to technology.
When the first iPhones and other smartphones hit the commercial market, the oldest millennials were graduating from college and the youngest millennials from elementary school. The group has never known adulthood without the internet in their pockets. They call and text whomever, whenever; see what people across the world are doing in real time, and have a network of followers who engage with their content within mere moments of sharing.
In short, the near constant stream of feedback supported by the internet has become background noise for millennials. Beyond that, the generation has come to rely on this rich, crowd-sourced data to guide their every move.
Regardless of whether you’re delivering constructive or complimentary feedback, it is critical to understand this generation’s expectations about frequency when determining how to communicate with millennials most effectively.
4. Millennials View Themselves and Other Generations as Equals
Finally, anyone seeking frictionless communication with millennials needs to understand that members of this generation view themselves as equals, regardless of their colleagues’ relative seniority, level of education, or other distinguishing accomplishments.
There’s a sizable cohort of baby boomers and Gen Xers working alongside millennials who find this to be the generation’s most infuriating characteristic of all. Their air of equivalence can be interpreted as a sign of entitlement or inflated self-image — sometimes correctly. But until proven otherwise, it’s best for members of other generations to give millennials the benefit of the doubt and assume they have good intentions.
This assumption of equivalence is partially rooted in the fact that millennials, as a generation, bring a unique skillset to work — and they know it. They’re fluent in technology in a way that previous generations (all of whom are non-native to the digital word) aren’t. Millennials’ recommendations in this arena often target increased organizational efficiency, and they expect to be taken seriously for the technological fluency they bring to the table. In most cases, even the most junior millennials’ tech-savvy worldview can inform extremely useful suggestions in the workplace.
In many cases, millennials simply want to be given the same degree of respect and responsibility as everyone else — an expectation that can, again, prove to be an advantage for leaders learning how to communicate with millennials about less-than-complimentary feedback.
How to Communicate with Millennials about Constructive Feedback
When the time comes to deliver constructive feedback to millennials — and it inevitably will — let the characteristics discussed above inform your approach to make it more advantageous to both you and the millennial(s) on the receiving end.
The benefits of transforming constructive feedback into a positive experience extend far beyond sparing millennials’ feelings. The better you understand how to communicate with millennials thoughtfully, the more receptive they will be to the content you are conveying.
Keep these four guidelines in mind to ensure your constructive feedback remains helpful when communicating with millennials.
1. Focus on Potential Personal Benefits
This recommendation ties directly back to millennials’ craving for professional development. If millennials think you’re tearing down their hard work, negatively framed feedback will trigger their defense mechanisms. Improperly delivered negative feedback can come across as a threat to anyone, but especially to a generation so attuned to the consequences of toxic communication.
Instead, frame feedback as a direct contribution to millennials’ professional development.
If you have millennial direct reports, set yourself up as a mentor committed to supporting their professional development on day one. Ask your millennials employees about their career goals, and demonstrate that you’re there to support them in all the ways you can — whether that means directing them towards educational resources or inviting them to collaborate on initiatives aligned with their goals.
Once you set this precedent, figuring out how to communicate with millennials about constructive feedback becomes as simple as reframing your recommendations for improvement as an act of support in their professional journey.
When you deliver constructive feedback, tell the recipient you think they’d be even more successful in current and future roles if they implement whatever behavioral changes you’re recommending. Present constructive feedback not as an insult, but as the next step towards success. If you do, your millennial employees are more likely to internalize this feedback and make changes moving forward.
2. Level with Them
Given that millennials see themselves as indisputably equal players in the workforce, it can be helpful to approach negative feedback as a conversation between two colleagues on level ground.
If you’re concerned about how to communicate with millennials in a way that encourages them to stay open to your suggestions, consider using an introductory line to the effect of “Listen, I’m going to be frank with you about your performance because I see you as a colleague on parr with myself and trust that you can handle this feedback.”
Using this strategy frames the feedback — no matter how negative — as an act of respect. Furthermore, it puts your millennial employee in a position where being receptive to whatever feedback follows affirms their reputation as a respectable, level-headed peer — and refuting it may cause you to rethink your initial appraisal.
3. Provide Clear Expectations for the Future
People experience the strongest sense of regret when they feel they’ll never have a second chance to correct a mistake. This feeling locks that individual in rumination, without the solace of a productive way forward. A major key for knowing how to communicate with millennials — or anyone, for that matter — in a way that’s conducive to future improvement is to avoid inciting feelings of regret.
How can you do this?
If you’re having a conversation with a millennial employee about how to improve their performance, make sure the discussion ends with actionable guidelines to proceed more effectively in the future. Be as clear and specific as possible, and point out that you’re giving the recipient this feedback now because they’ll be presented with many opportunities to act differently down the road. Emphasize that you look forward to seeing them do so.
By ending your conversation on a future-oriented note, you’ll mitigate feelings of regret. As a result, your millennial employee is more likely to conceptualize the interaction as a conversation about progress, rather than mistakes.
4. Balance Constructive Feedback with Positive Recognition
If you tried to satiate millennials’ craving for feedback with nothing but constructive criticism, their morale would wear thin in a matter of weeks (at best). Although there is a time and place for improving performance through constructive feedback, one of the most effective strategies endorsed by leaders who know how to communicate with millennials is practicing frequent positive recognition.
Employee recognition boosts everything from morale and employee retention to productivity and engagement. Millennials especially want to receive recognition often and in real-time. The best way to firmly ingrain this practice in your company culture is through a formal employee recognition program. The right employee recognition software will keep your program streamlined (which removes logistical barriers to frequent recognition) and aligned with major company initiatives (which imbues the program with strategic value in addition to its feel-good benefits).
When employees know all the things they’re doing right, it’s a lot easier to hear about the things they’re doing wrong. A thriving recognition program will ease the challenge of determining how to communicate with millennials about constructive feedback by cushioning it with abundant, offsetting positives.
Constructive Feedback Can Be a Chance for Growth
With these tips in your arsenal, you’re well equipped to deliver negative feedback to millennial employees. While there’s no guarantee that the process will always go smoothly, these guidelines will certainly make the experience of delivering negative feedback to millennial employees not only less painful, but more productive.
Failing to address millennials’ shortcomings is a surefire way to support mounting cross-generational frustration, which is anything but conducive to a supportive working environment. Conversely, knowing how to communicate with millennials effectively turns constructive feedback into an opportunity for mutual growth and ultimately benefits all involved parties, their ability to collaborate with one another, and organizational success at large.
Katerina Mery is a Marketing Specialist at Fond with a background in cognitive psychology and a passion for improving the way people live and work. She especially enjoys learning about how to accomplish this through rewards and recognition. In her spare time, you can find Katerina running outside, admiring art, and exploring the latest and greatest local restaurants.