The March/April issue of Psychology Today features a fascinating article on millennials, including a chart contrasting the way baby boomers see millennial’s traits with the way millennials themselves see those same traits.
For example, millennials seek frequent feedback. Boomer supervisors may criticize this as attention-seeking or lack of the necessary knowledge to do their work. Millennials themselves see it as eagerness to please. They like to be frequently advised if they are pleasing, so they can make any necessary adjustments. They like being mentored. What a refreshing change from those from my young working world who wouldn’t want to be seen visiting the mentor’s office for fear that people might realize that they didn’t know everything.
Two millennial traits, in particular, interest me as a negotiation and consensus trainer. The first is what boomers may see as disrespect for authority. But here’s how a millennial consultant describes that same trait, “We are all about equal rights at every level. That’s why everyone thinks we want to be CEO on day one–because we want our voices to be heard. We don’t believe in those big corporate hierarchies.”
Linguistics expert Dr. Deborah Tannen tells us that cultural differences in the way we speak and interact with other people arise from differences in the way we prioritize two basic human needs. One is the need for status. We all want some measure of status, a sense of uniqueness or individuality, and a sense that we compare well with others. A status-based dynamic is characterized by hierarchical relationships and competitive interaction styles.
The other basic need is connection. We all want to feel that we belong in a group and that we have things in common with others. A connection-based cynamic is characterized by egalitarian relationships and cooperative or collaborative interaction styles.
Based on what I know about the interaction styles that work best in negotiation, seeking consensus, or persuading others, it is abundantly clear that the competitive style that many people think is negotiation rarely produces the best results. This is a status-based style I like to call “number line tug –of-war.” Each party takes an exaggerated opening position on the number line, having in mind a bottom line or top line limit to how far they will compromise. Then each tries to hug the other toward himself on the number line, while digging in his heels and trying not to move. The best result this system can produce is a compromise. And a compromise, by definition, precludes a win-win. A compromise is a lose-lose.
If millennials dislike hierarchy, I say, “Bring ’em on.” Of course, there are some human endeavors that require the hierarchical command-and-control paradigm. Examples are military and police operations. But that paradigm is way overused at the negotiation table, and in business in general. What works better is a more egalitarian dynamic.
Which brings me to the second millennial trait that excites me. Millennials want to work collaboratively. They have experienced this approach in school. They’re good at collaborating. And a collaborative approach to negotiation or consensus building is exactly what usually works better than number line tug-of-war. Collaborative negotiation not only allows for a win-win, which number line tug-of-war does not, it facilitates a win-win.
I predict that, as millennials become more prominent in the workplace, and come into their prime, we will see a beautiful shift from the ubercompetitive discord that currently characterizes not only business, but also politics and religion, toward a more peaceful and productive dynamic in all of these venues.
To make the very most of this, my advice to everyone, from baby boomers to millennials, is to remember that every generation has its own unique skills and experiences to offer, and the best results of all occur when we find room for everyone to do what they do best.
For example, millennials will do themselves a favor if they realize that collaboration produces the best results when each collaborator has alone time interspersed with collaborative sessions with the rest of the team. During alone time, both her conscious and unconscious mind works on the matter in hand, Older team members may need a little more alone time than you do. If they get it, your collaborative sessions will enjoy optimum benefits from their knowledge and experience. Make sure your egalitarianism, your belief that every voice should be heard, extends to the voices of other generations.
As for boomers, Gen X and Gen Y, be prepared to let millennials know that you are willing to collaborate, and also be prepared to help them see what you have to offer and how they can optimize it. For example, during a collaborative meeting, if you sense that the decision is being reached prematurely, you can say something like, “I’d like to suggest that we postpone the final decision until I have time to refresh my memory on some similar situations that have occurred in the past. It’s possible I’ll find something that will help us optimize this plan even more.”
Nothing would please me more than to see millenial’s contributions to our culture make my present job obsolete. Then I’ll get back to writing the great American novel.
 Dan Schawbel, quoted by Abby Ellin in “The Beat (Up) Generation,” Psychology Today, March/April 2014, p. 63