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Managing Millennials: How to Give 'Tough Love' the Right Way

Want to raise expectations for your coddled younger workers? Here's how to do it productively in a way that keeps morale high.

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Complaining about "kids these days" has probably been a popular pastime among the no longer young since the dawn of time, but when it comes to growing up soft, the so-called Millennials got a serious leg up. Raising their children in a time of nearly unbroken peace and prosperity, the parents of priviliged American 20-somethings had every opportunity to coddle their kids, protecting them from every possible bruise -- physical or emotional.

What’s been the result of this so-called "helicopter parenting"? According to one psychiatrist who recently shared her experience working with lost-at-sea young people on Slate, thanks to overinvolved parents and too few struggles, young people face higher rates of depression and "increased dependence and decreased ability to complete tasks without parental supervision."

Kids These Days

But as a business owner, you probably don’t need a psychiatrist to tell you that plenty of young people need excessive handholding and haven’t yet developed the skills they need to excel as actual adults. You’ve probably come across some of them at your own company. They’ve left their parents’ care and now they’re your problem, so how do you show them a bit of tough love, raising expectations and toughening them up a bit?

It’s a tricky question, but on the HBR blogs recently, Joanne Lipman, co-author of Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations, has some advice culled from an unexpected source -- her childhood orchestra conductor Mr K. A no-nonsense immigrant who went through a challenging youth before coming to the States, Mr K demanded the best from his pupils and sugar coated exactly nothing but, Lipman claims, he did it in a way that was inspiring rather than deflating. Business owners can learn a few lessons from his techniques.

Get Praise Right

If you don’t mean it, don’t say it. Simple as that. Lipman’s teacher "never gave us false praise, and never even used words like 'talent.'" It’s a principle both ornery orchestra leaders and psychologists agree on, especially the part about never praising inherent ability.

"Studies show that when we are praised for having high ability, it leaves us vulnerable to self-doubt when we encounter difficulty. If being successful means you are ‘a natural,’ then it’s easy to conclude when you’re having a hard time that you just don’t have what it takes," Columbia’s Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson has explained.

Set the Bar High, but Offer a Step Ladder

If your young employees are struggling with a task, resist the urge to step in and just do it yourself. "Sometimes it seems it’s just easier to do the work yourself. Or to settle for less," writes Lipman, but by insisting your employee try until they get it right you communicate that you believe that eventually they will be able to accomplish the task.

But setting high expectations and sticking to them is only part of the process. You also need to give your overwhelmed junior employee a sense of how he or she can get from here to there. Lipman writes of Mr K: "He constantly kept us focused on the next challenge. How would we prepare, and what would we do to improve the next time? By articulating these intermediate goals, he encouraged us to continually stretch our abilities a bit further while reaching for objectives that were challenging, but ultimately achievable."

Don’t Penalize Failure

A corollary of demanding excellence and being uncompromising in your standards is showing empathy for the process of reaching those high expectations. "Sometimes we succeeded at auditions; sometimes we failed. But Mr. K made it clear that that failure was simply part of the process - not an end point, but simply an opportunity for us to learn how to improve the next time," writes Lipman.

Intrigued by Lipman’s tales of Mr K? If so, check out the complete post for many more tips and tricks from this master of tough love.

Have you tried a tough love approach with overwhelmed junior team members? How'd it go? 

 

Last updated: Dec 18, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.
@EntryLevelRebel




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