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The One Thing Millennials Struggle with Most in the Workplace

March 6, 2017 by Sue Pfleger

During a recent job interview, an applicant asked me about the one thing millennials struggle with most as career starters. In my experience as a manager of millennials at the start of their careers, the answer is quite simple: This is a generation that has trouble saying “no.”

Millennials want experiences, as many and as varied as possible. Not only at work, but also at play and in the way they spend. As a consequence, I have observed that millennials often find themselves taking on too many tasks and then floundering because they simply cannot manage everything.

This is not only about wanting experiences. It’s very much the phenomenon of FOMO, “fear of missing out.” There is often just too much choice. This sounds like a luxury, first-world problem, but it IS a problem of our times. We – and not just millennials – can do anything, and we want to do everything. There are so many interesting tasks, so many new things to learn, so many aspects of professional life, and millennials don’t want to miss the opportunity to learn and gain more experience — the thing that money simply cannot buy.

However, this can lead to committing to too many things, which they then bravely try to achieve, until things maybe start to go wrong or the expectations of the task-giver are not met, resulting in disappointment on both sides.

I believe another reason is that they are simply afraid to say “no.” This might be for cultural reasons — and is therefore not just about this younger generation — but I think it rather has its roots in a lack of experience and the feeling that you simply cannot say “no” to a manager or more senior colleague if they delegate something to you. Often times, they just don’t know how to say “no” without giving offense.

So how can the more experienced professionals support the millennials on our teams to say “no” and still keep them motivated, on track and continuously growing?

Here are some ideas:

  • If you are the manager, make sure that clear goals are set. Then the employee knows exactly what is expected and has this reference framework.
  • If you are the one who is offering another task to your millennial colleague, ask yourself whether it is congruent with their goals before you give them the excruciating dilemma of FOMO.
  • If you are a coach or mentor and a career starter comes to you for advice, help them to prioritize by asking questions such as:
    • Does this task match your goals?
    • Does this task give you a new learning opportunity?
    • Can you do this without sacrificing quality on your other tasks?
    • What will happen if you say you cannot take this on at this time?
    • What will you have to drop if you decide to take this on and what are the consequences?
    • Is it possible to defer the delivery date?
  • Coach them on how to say “no” without giving offence, for example: “This task sounds really appealing and I would love to do it, but I have to complete X-task first and I am currently also working on X-project in parallel. Would it be possible to defer the task?”

Being aware of this phenomenon in millennials and watching out for the signs of FOMO will help to support career starters when they take their first steps in professional life. The wonderful experiences they crave so much will then be a given.

To learn more about what millennials want in the workplace and what they expect from senior leaders, take a look at the results from the recent Leaders 2020 study conducted by Oxford Economics and SAP SuccessFactors.

Sue Pfleger is program lead for the Global HR Early Talent Program at SAP

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