What Family Dynamics Can Teach You About Managing Millennials

Envision your last family reunion: bocce ball, Grandma Thelma’s famous cookies, laughs and tiffs in equal measure, and family members from just about every generation. Now envision your workplace. Cookies? Hopefully. Bocce ball? Maybe. Multigenerational? Most definitely—which can be the source of laughs at your family get-together, but can be much less funny in a professional setting.

And here’s the complication: everyone has their own unique workplace perspective based on the generation they belong to. Boomers have a distinctive set of traits and values, as do Xers, Millennials, and Generation Edge. Too often, when people try to manage someone of a different generation, they’ll either try to impose their own viewpoints on them or bend over backward trying to see through their eyes. The best tactic, as is usually the case, lies somewhere in the middle. You don’t need to be a Millennial to manage a Millennial, but recognizing your own generational strengths, as well as potential pitfalls, can help ease the difficulties that arise in pursuing Millennial management excellence.

With that in mind, we’re looking at the three generations that most often manage Millennials: the Boomer manager, the Xer manager, and the Millennial manager. We’re all about the #workfamily, so we’re using the family dynamic as an analogy for these three types of managers. No, we’re not saying Millennials are whiny kids or that Boomers are stodgy parents—at all. The family analogy is just a useful way to illustrate how different generational dynamics can play out in a manager-Millennial employee relationship. Roll with it, and read on:

The Parent Trap: Boomers Managing Millennials

No, we don’t mean the Lindsay Lohan trading places classic flick (it’s a classic to Millennials, ok?). But Boomer-Millennial work relationships can easily fall into the parent-child archetype, simply because many Boomers have kids around the age of their Millennial employees. Perhaps you’ve even made the Freudian slip of calling your employee your son’s name, or if you’re a Millennial, calling your boss “Mom.” No? Just me?

Why it works:
A Boomer-Millennial work relationship can feel more natural thanks to this parent-child aspect. Both cohorts also have a shared trait—optimism—so they’ll likely be the first to rally around an idea, celebrate wins, or think big picture.

Why it struggles:
It can be easy, as a Boomer manager, to think of Millennials as kids who need to earn their place. Think of the classic tropes: “When I was your age…” or “Back in my day…” Say one of these phrases and Millennials will think of the scolding they got from their parents back in middle school, and no one needs to be reminded of those hellish years. Don’t get stuck in the past; just because you did things differently doesn’t mean Millennials are doing them incorrectly.

Tip to become a champion:
Millennials are already familiar with the mentor model of interacting with “adults” and higher-ups; they’ve had coaches, teachers, and counselors their entire lives. But Boomer managers who are equally as willing to learn from their Millennials will go far. From tech to networking to slang, realizing that mentoring is not a one-way street makes these two generations a winning combination.

The Younger Sibling: Gen Xers Managing Millennials

You might think Xers and Millennials would be best buds in the workplace, because they’re both young and pretty tech-savvy. Au contraire! Xer managers and Millennial workers often face the biggest clashes. Think of the little brother or sister with their finger one millimeter from your face, taunting, “I’m not touching you… I’m not touching you…”

Why it works:
This duo works in an opposites-attract way. Skeptical and questioning Xers balance out the eager optimism of Millennials. These generations also share some of the same workplace values—transparency and efficiency—though they’re expressed in different ways.

Why it struggles:
Millennials can quickly get on independent Xers’ last nerves by constantly prodding them for feedback and check-ins. Xers who view their Millennials as underlings that serve to pester will only agitate the situation. Shutting down your Millennials for wanting feedback may result in their request to transfer, or even leave the company altogether.

Tip to become a champion:
Stop asking, “Why do I need to change for them?” because you don’t. Stay true to your Xer self, but be open and willing to find common ground with your Millennials. Set clear parameters about when, where, and how-often they can and should check-in. And if something is truly bothering you? Be honest with them, then try to find a solve that suits both you and your Millennial. Remember, transparency goes a long way with both of these generations.

The Twin: Millennials Managing Millennials

Millennials managing Millennials may seem like the ideal manager-employee relationship. Coming from the same generation means having quite a few things in common—both grew up experiencing the same events, using the same technology, and indulging in the same pop culture. Think of Tia and Tamera from Sister, Sister, but in an office and without the denim bucket hats.

Why it works:
Shared history can also translate into the workplace. Both manager and employee are probably on the same page about things like communication, work ethic, and culture. The very-Millennial mentality of work family, or creating a bond that goes beyond the workplace, will help this relationship flourish.

Why it struggles:
Managers who are Millennials struggle with a catch-22. On the one hand, managers may feel pressure to assert their title or the need to distance themselves from their generation entirely with an “I’m your boss” mentality. On the other hand, they may fear making the final decision or taking charge because their employees are also friends and peers.

Tip to become a champion:

This may seem like a no-brainer, but make use of your generation! As a Millennial manager, give frequent feedback, be open to workplace flexibility and collaboration, and ensure your Millennial employees feel their skills are being developed and groomed for the future—whether that’s with your company or not.

For more valuable tips on managing Millennials, pick up a copy of Managing Millennials For Dummies®.