Independent Xers versus Collaborative Millennials in the Workplace

By Dummies Press

When you say “let’s collaborate” and every generation comes to the table with a different idea of what that means, it’s easy to see how things can get confusing — and frustrating — fast. Each generational combo can yield its own specific frustration. Boomers’ proclivity for more meetings can bother Xers’ need for fewer. While Millennials and Boomers have their own unique challenges around the formality factor of collaborative work, when it comes to working together (or alone), one clash comes up as almost iconic in its intensity: Xers versus Millennials, with the former strongly favoring solo work and the latter showing a stalwart preference for collaboration.

This Xer-versus-Millennial dynamic, and the reason it causes so much frustration, can be boiled down to one fine point: Millennials lead with their collaborative foot, and Gen Xers lead with their independent foot. Someone is bound to get stepped on. Add to that the managerial dynamic, often that of the Xer managing the Millennial, and you’ve got quite a puzzle on your hands.

Both sides have good intentions. You’ve heard the concept of the golden rule — “Treat others the way you want to be treated” — likely as early as pre-K, when teachers were trying to stop you from swiping your fellow student’s snack pack. While this saying imparts great wisdom in principle, especially for a group of mischievous toddlers, in the workplace the value of that golden rule crumbles when you’re trying to manage or work with others. Xers assume that Millennials want to be managed the way that they, the Xers, like being managed. Millennials assume Xers want to collaborate the way they, the Millennials, like to collaborate. Good intentions, bad results. So as you attempt to take off your own generational lens and put on that of another, check out the following discussions to view collaboration from both an Xer and Millennial standpoint.

Look through Gen Xers’ eyes

Independent Xers are fully of the mindset that if you want something to be done right, you need to be the one who does it. They’re the kind of employees who, when given a project, say, “Tell me what you want, when you want it, and how you want it. I’ll take it back with me, work on it alone for a while, and bring it back to you later.” In a nutshell, “Back off — I got this.”

To Gen Xers, micromanaging is borderline insulting, because it suggests they’re incapable of carrying out a project to completion independently. They prefer to create their own structure, because at the end of the day, they are the ones who understand their work flow best.

In Xers’ minds, solo work is by far the most efficient way to complete a project, and check-ins along the way, while sometimes needed, are not integral to getting their work done on time and getting it done well. Teamwork and collaboration have their uses, but like a fine seasoning, they should be used sparingly.

Millennials’ viewpoint

On the other hand, for Millennials, collaborative work is the quickest way to develop the best and most innovative work. Working with their peers and managers is a way to pull winning ideas from the collective. For them, it’s almost presumptuous to believe that their own individual ideas are the best ones.

Millennials tackle projects with the belief that working collectively is a quick way to reveal inefficiencies and weaknesses — more eyes on a certain project means more varied perspectives and more ways of testing as you’re creating. Why would you wait until something is fully baked to present it to others? Odds are good that you’ll have missed something, and it seems like such a huge waste of time to backtrack and fix the problem after the fact. That’s why they gravitate toward collaborative work, with many eyes on any given project, lots of clear structure, and multiple opportunities for feedback along the way. These constant check-ins during a project are one of the most obvious showcases of Millennials’ collaborative nature.

Find the right ways to manage collaboration

Here are some tips for managing the Millennial collaborative spirit:

  • Don’t get frustrated. This may seem like a silly tip, but many an Xer manager can hardly mask the annoyance in his voice when talking about a super-collaborative Millennial employee. “Are they even capable of thinking for themselves?!” The answer is, of course, yes. They may just need a little help along the way — at least at first. Don’t lead with frustration. Start by understanding the Millennial’s perspective and go from there.
  • Explain the why. Often the best strategy to encourage a Millennial to do anything is to explain the why. There will be moments when independent work is clearly the best way to approach a task. When that’s the case, take a few extra minutes to explain that’s the case.
  • Encourage independent work, even if it’s not great at first. Understand that odds are good that working independently is not a comfortable thought for your Millennial employees. They will fumble during their first try, fear failure that can lead to losing their reputation or job, and look to you as a guide. Help them through the process, gently pointing out where they can improve while simultaneously encouraging their wins.
  • Offer yourself as a resource. What? Doesn’t this negate the whole “work independently” thing? It’s true that offering yourself as a resource makes you and your Millennial a mini team of two. But, especially during the first few projects, Millennials are going to feel like they’re on an island. Let them know you’re available as a resource and for support, within reason, as they work through their first few solo projects.
  • Preemptively schedule check-ins. Many Millennials are intuitive enough to know when they’re pestering instead of questioning. If you are one who’s prone to a “less is more” mentality when it comes to the project touch-base and smile to mask clenched teeth when a Millennial knocks on your door, articulate your needs early and let them know the most appropriate time to check-in. Take it upon yourself to create the check-in schedule. It will save you and that Millennial from playing the “I wonder if they’re annoyed with me yet” game.
  • Decide where and when collaboration would be most useful. All independent work makes a Millennial a dull boy (or girl). Sometimes teamwork is a good approach to a project or assignment. Find those opportunities to vary the work your Millennial reports are involved in. Note that if all your Millennials’ work is independent, they’ll find it draining and demotivating.

What Millennials really want when they ask to collaborate

When you think about Millennials and their desire to collaborate, what comes to mind? There are definitely those who paint quite the picture in their head. Xers may think that Millennials just want to sit around a campfire and hold hands, singing in unison and swaying back and forth. Others envision a room of Millennials sipping on IPAs and shouting out ideas during a brainstorm, with those thoughts all written in colorful dry-erase pens on a massive whiteboard. Yes, Millennials are a hyper-collaborative generation, but that has been a part of their cultural upbringing.

Once you deconstruct the pieces of the collaborative workplace pie, you’ll find that, ultimately, all Millennials want is to work together on a project to reach a goal. Working collaboratively is not limited to having a brainstorm session with a huge team of their peers. Collaboration can be seen when they get feedback from a manager or a peer. It’s a natural part of their mentor-mentee relationships. It occurs in-person and virtually.

Instead of writing them off as a needy, pack-minded bunch, think about what Millennials are really asking for when they ask to collaborate:

  • Millennials want the best idea to come to the fore — even if it’s not their own. As much as this generation gets the title of “narcissist” slapped on their persona, they can be incredibly humble when it comes to the workplace. That love of the group brainstorm? It’s because they know that the collective will almost always produce a better idea than the individual. They can bounce thoughts off one another, using one thought as a jumping-off point for another. Millennials truly want the best idea to win out, even if it’s not one that they dreamed up.
  • Millennials want constant feedback to know they’re on the right track. The whole “Millennials love feedback” thing is not because they’re needy, but because they want to know that they’re on the right path. It’s a “Millennials love efficiency” thing. If you give them feedback, or if they solicit feedback from their coworkers or their team, they can then course-correct before it becomes a bigger problem.
  • Millennials don’t want a babysitter; they want a coach. When they look for guidance and collaboration from their managers and leaders, they want a relationship that’s more coach and less babysitter. A babysitter hovers and watches your every move, may talk down to you, and knows he is in charge. A coach, instead, grooms you. He doesn’t scold you when you make a mistake but rather builds a path to refine your skills. It’s about bettering your Millennial employees rather than punishing them or hawking over them.
  • Millennials don’t need to collaborate with you, but they want to collaborate with someone. The onus doesn’t always lie with you to be the one to work with them. You’re busy; they get that. The pressure on you to be the collaborator can be easily alleviated by giving them a chance to collaborate with one other. Team up people who complement each other. Assign work in team-based projects when possible. Or simply assign Millennials a buddy they can check-in with if they need to run something by someone.

Help Millennials do independent work

Millennials don’t need help when it comes to collaboration. That piece they’ve got down pat. The struggle that many managers wring their hands over is getting their Millennial employees to do more independent work.

It’s not that Millennials are incapable of solo work, or even that they don’t enjoy it. They’re just used to a collaborative work style. The key is to support them in their independent endeavors, not get frustrated at their attempts to collaborate.

When encouraging Millennial independent work, be incredibly explicit about the first independent project you assign them. No detail is too small. A foolproof way to help Millennials as they embark on independent projects is to schedule a kickoff meeting with them to explain the assignment. Lay it all out. Assure them that you’ll be there along the way to help them with any snags they may encounter.

Before those meetings, refer to this checklist. If you want Millennials to do their best independent work, you should be able to confidently say you have done each of the following bolded statements. A good way to test if you have, in fact, done all you need to do is that you should have provided clear direction on each question following those statements as well before sending them on their way:

  • I set crystal-clear expectations.
    • What is the desired outcome of the project?
    • What should the final deliverable look like in terms of length, form, tone, font, style, production, and so forth?
  • I provided a road map of the project.
    • What is the deadline?
    • What milestones need to be checked off in the process?
    • If the schedule gets derailed, how should it be readjusted?
  • I described the frequency of check-ins and what a typical check-in meeting might look like.
    • Are you meeting once a week? Twice a month? Every other hour?
    • How long do your check-ins last?
    • Who puts them in the calendar and schedules follow-ups?
    • Do you want the employee to prepare questions ahead of time?
    • Did you include a directory of all the resources that may be needed?
    • Are there online tools the employee can use to answer questions?
    • What can you provide the employee with in advance to help with the project?
    • Who is held accountable for note-taking, and how will those notes be captured?
  • I told the employee who he can collaborate with besides me.
    • Is there another teammate the employee can turn to for support?
    • Who in the workplace is best to turn to for what kinds of questions?
    • Does the employee feel comfortable taking charge independently?
    • Does he have a good idea of when to seek someone else’s opinion instead of relying on his own?

The skeptical reader may be thinking this checklist seems like massive overkill and way too much work. Just keep in mind that you won’t be doing this every single time. You’re getting the Millennial primed to succeed at independent projects and laying the groundwork for successful solo work in the future. Though it may represent a heavy time investment upfront, you’ll see major payoffs later on. And eventually, the Millennial may even run these project kickoff meetings with other Millennials for you.