By Bruce Tulgan, excerpted from Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials
This is part two in the Managing Millennials Series. You can view Part 1 here.
Create an Upward Spiral of Continuous Improvement
Managers often tell me they have a hard time talking to Millennials about failures great and small. “When they make a mistake, you hesitate to tell them because they take it so hard,” I was told by a partner at a prestigious law firm. “They seem to take it personally, like you are breaking their heart. I want to say, ‘Don’t feel bad. Just go back and make these changes, and then next time try to remember to do it properly in the first place.’ That seems pretty basic.” It is pretty basic.
When it comes to addressing Millennials’ performance problems, the most common mistake managers make is soft-pedaling honest feedback or withholding it altogether. Sometimes managers take back incomplete work and finish it themselves or reassign it. Other times the problems are not addressed at all, and the work product remains substandard. Millennials are left to fail unwittingly or improve on their own impulse and initiative. As one Millennial put it, “What do you want me to do, scream it? Beg for it? Help! Help me get it right. Help me do it faster. Help me do it better. Help me improve.”
The second most common mistake managers make when dealing with Millennials’ performance problems is hit-and-run criticism. Unlike soft-pedaling managers, hit-and-run managers don’t hesitate to offer honest negative comments about Millennials’ performance. But hit-and-run managers often critique work randomly—when they happen to notice a mistake and also have a moment to reach out to the employee in question—instead of systematically reviewing work product. They are likely to disparage errors and omissions, even when they haven’t taken the time earlier to make expectations clear. Millennials usually feel blindsided. One Millennial shared this story with me: “There was this one guy who would just attack me out of the blue. I wasn’t even working for him, really, but he was on the project. I’d see him in the cafeteria, and he would grab my upper arm and tell me something I did was crap: ‘Your presentation this morning was crap.’ ‘That e-mail you sent around this morning was crap.’ I hated that guy.”
When it comes to performance management with Millennials, the best practice is to be systematic, honest, and positive. That’s how you create an upward spiral of continuous improvement.
Focus on Solutions, Not Problems
“I learned early on that the trick with Millennials is exactly NOT to ignore performance problems, exactly NOT to tell them they are doing better than they are. But you can’t ambush them either. It has to be a process of continuous improvement.” That’s what I was told by one of the most successful business leaders in the restaurant industry—a man with a reputation for developing young, high-potential employees into industry superstars. “When I am developing a young talent, I spend a lot of time focusing on problems, one little problem after another. I don’t sugar-coat it, but I never treat it like a problem.” He continued, “No matter what they do, they know my focus is next steps.”
I could see why this guy was so successful at developing Millennials. He continued, “They want to improve, even the less talented, less promising young men and women. If you talk about continuous improvement, they are all ears. You can’t ignore problems because that’s really what continuous improvement is: removing imperfections one at a time. But I never bother calling it a problem. For me, it’s all about next steps.
That’s what continuous improvement really is anyway. It’s always about whatever we are focused on improving at the moment. I find that when they have a whole bunch of next steps focused on solutions, that problem not only gets solved, but it doesn’t come back, not with that person anyway. They learn the lesson, and it sticks.”
This “next steps” focus is one level deeper than a “results focus.” Next steps will help you concentrate your performance management efforts on the concrete actions within the control of each individual employee. Maintaining a next-steps focus requires a constant accounting. Keep asking your young employees: Exactly what concrete actions—next steps—are you going to take next? What can you do to improve? What do you need to revise and adjust?
Keep Track of Their Performance
The challenge with this deep level of performance management is how to monitor performance closely enough to make fair and accurate evaluations and to provide the guidance necessary to facilitate constant improvement. There is no substitute for actually watching Millennials performing their concrete actions.
“It’s kind of like going to my kid’s Little League game,” said one retail manager. “I learn more about my employees from watching them deal with a customer for a few minutes than almost any other performance indicator.” I call this approach shadowing. Any time an employee is struggling with a recurring performance problem, shadow that employee for a little while and watch him in action. Nine times out of ten, you’ll be able to help the employee solve the problem with relative ease by focusing on next steps. But it is the rare manager who can regularly watch employees work with his or her own eyes. You must have a way to monitor and measure their performance on a regular basis. That means you need to spot-check their work. Ask customers for feedback on individual employees. Ask other managers. And ask Millennials themselves. As one Millennial said: “I’d rather have a manager who is keeping really close track of what I’m doing than one who doesn’t know who I am or what I’m doing or even care. My boss trusts me to keep really close track of myself, which is what I want. I’m the one doing all the talking. I tell her everything I’m doing in a weekly report. I have a running list so it’s easy. I e-mail her which things are done and what I’m working on at the present time. Then we go over it on the phone. She trusts me, and I am a total star for her.”
One of the best approaches I’ve seen to the challenge of monitoring Millennials’ performance is making them responsible for keeping track of their own performance. Give Millennials tools like project plans, work diaries, and checklists. Ask them to keep track of their own work in writing and report to you on a regular basis. “I have them write down everything,” said the manager of an entry-level group in a large insurance company. “I have them keep track of their whole day in an activity log. Most of them find it very helpful. For me, I couldn’t function without it because I have twenty-six people. I can help them track down just about any problem any time because I say, ‘Let’s just go through your activity log and see what happened.’ My group is the least experienced one in this entire company, and our error rate is the lowest. I attribute that entirely to the activity logs. What they love is being the highest-performing group and the rewards that come with that… But the biggest impact is how it impacts their work. It slows them down and forces them to double- and triple-check their work. Just keeping the activity logs makes them more careful.”
The best managers I know create a constant feedback loop with their Millennials—what one very experienced manager in information technology calls “coming full circle.” He said, “That’s my mantra with them: ‘Come full circle with that.’ What that means is, ‘This assignment begins with a conversation between you and me, and it’s going to come back to a conversation between you and me. I’m going to want to know what happened. Did you do what I asked you to do? Did you do it the way I asked you to do it? If not, why not? Did anything come up that I hadn’t anticipated? Did you think of a better way? So come full circle, and we’ll talk about what happened.’ That’s what it means to me.”
When I interviewed this manager’s Millennial employees, they all said the same thing, “Oh yeah, ‘Come full circle!’ That’s his mantra.” I wasn’t surprised that they all seemed to appreciate coming full circle. A programmer on this manager’s team told me, “…It’s his secret weapon. He doesn’t want anyone leaving loose ends hanging out there. So you always are second-guessing yourself, making sure you haven’t forgotten anything, or left any loose ends because he is definitely going to ask you about it.” Another programmer on the team told me, “He calls it coming full circle, but it never ends. He’s always there with you. It’s more like an upward spiral.”
About the Author
Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), , and It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website www.rainmakerthinking.com.