Management comes with many and varied challenges, but I would contend that the most important one is how you lead and manage people. I am loathe to engage in sweeping generalisations, especially when couched in terms of generational decline or bad attitudes, but I cannot deny my own personal experience of the millennial generation (those born between 1984 and 2000) has been challenging (that euphemism for painful and frustrating!) and yet it has taught me (usually the hard way) about leadership and management.
We often hear of the ‘millennial question’ – how do we manage this apparently unmanageable generation? What’s wrong with them? Obviously, things such as a bad attitude are timeless and can be found in people of any age, as too can people with shallow surface confidence, brittleness of character, feelings of specialness, insecurity, lack of commitment and all the other attitudinal attributes of which millennials are accused.
Are these accusations fair? Yes and no. There is no question that millennials have had some terrible parenting. I have heard parents countless times telling their children that they are special and that they can have anything they want simply because they desire it, setting them up for failure and disappointment. Millennials haven’t had the more accurate message that to get something worth having you have to work hard for it. Wanting it is not enough. Dreams do not spontaneously manifest themselves. Consequently, the real world comes as a dreadful shock. They discover they are not special, there are no prizes for participating and no medals for poor performances. Not surprisingly, this bracing headlong crash into reality deals a very heavy blow to their perception of themselves and rocks their confidence to the core. It isn’t fair to blame them for the consequences of poor parenting. Nevertheless, we have to live with the consequences and we have to understand it and address it.
My first experience of dealing with this was the fallout from having to fire a teacher. First, she had to be fired three times because she didn’t understand she was being fired – this from someone with a law degree! The following morning when we were moving to a new location, I received a telephone call from her mother demanding to see me in my office (I didn’t have one) and demanding to know why her precious daughter had been fired. I calmly replied that she had been fired for poor performance, poor timekeeping and unprofessional behaviour. Her mother then said it was impossible that her daughter could be like that – and then proceeded to be rather abusive, so I hung up the phone. It took her several minutes to notice that there was no one on the other end of the line before she rang back a second time to carry on complaining! Clearly, the daughter had inherited her mother’s listening skills! At the time, my internal thought was that if this person’s response to a setback in life was to get her mother to ring everybody and be rude to them, she was going to find life very difficult.
The first time I managed a group of millennials, I was frustrated and baffled. At our first staff meeting I talked of the CPD workshops and people’s professional development. I put an area on the board for them to write down requests so I could prepare something suitable in time. Lots of smiles and approving noises followed. ‘My door is always open. Also, feel free to call me after you’ve gone home if you want help or advice. It’s what I’m here for. I’ve also sent you a copy of the lesson observation pro forma and a detailed breakdown of what it expects along with examples to illustrate it. I’ve emailed you all a copy of all the materials and the teacher handbooks. Anything else you need, just ask. Talk to each other and help each other. If I’m not here, the centre manager is an experienced teacher.’ Helpful, supportive, prepared. I felt confident. What could possibly go wrong?!
One teacher, who had a very high opinion of herself, suddenly metamorphosed into a crippled wreck when we sat down to do observation feedback before I’d uttered a word. ‘Tell me what was wrong with it. How bad was it?’ The veneer of artificial self-confidence lay before my eyes, shattered into a thousand pieces. It was a shock! There hadn’t been anything ‘wrong’ with the lesson, I was content overall with what I’d seen, and like most observations, there were some things I thought could be sharpened up and we went through those as well as the positives. She then spent the rest of the summer not trying a single suggestion I had made, perfectly embodying the company culture: apparently full of themselves but very chippy and fragile underneath the surface; and possessing a complete disregard for any constructive feedback. I was perplexed because this teacher was not a case of Dunning–Kruger syndrome (Kruger & Dunning, 1999). Kruger & Dunning found that people who are low performers are not good at accepting criticism and often don’t show interest in self-improvement. This cognitive bias means, in practice, that if people don’t change the knowledge they assume they have, they keep on going thinking they’re amazing. But she wasn’t a poor performer.
One of the recurring complaints of companies (often aimed at millennials) is that they can’t get the right people. Physician, heal thyself! People tend to hire in their own image. If the person recruiting is lazy, stupid or complacent, what do you expect? A previous employer of mine hired a teacher who quit when he was challenged by his DoS about what he was doing. He was rehired the next year and the same thing happened. So what did they do? Yes – rehire him again! He turned up late on the first day and proved to be a safeguarding hazard for which I had him removed. It is the leadership that chooses its people and sets the culture. Bad managers hire bad millennials!
I once worked in a staff room where the senior teacher delegated administrative work that she should have done months previously to experienced teachers, ordering her admin to be done first. She never stayed more than five minutes after lessons had finished regardless of whether she had finished what needed to be done for the next day. So we found ourselves on occasion not knowing who we were supposed to be teaching, and at what level, until the following morning or afternoon. That terrible attitude is an inconvenience for experienced teachers who can plan at short notice or improvise effectively, but for those less experienced and less confident it is a disaster. It was selfish, unsupportive, unprofessional and destabilising. I can understand why the millennial generation is more inclined to complain of feeling undervalued in these circumstances. Why would anyone want to work in that environment again? If your experience of a leader is that they clock watch, enjoy criticising people that they don’t like in the staff room in front of everyone to the extent where other people pick up on it quickly and remark on it, what lessons would you learn from such a toxic presence? If you can’t lead effectively, at least set a good example in personal conduct!
“If your experience of a leader is that they clock watch, enjoy criticising people that they don’t like in the staff room in front of everyone to the extent where other people pick up on it quickly and remark on it, what lessons would you learn from such a toxic presence?”
What millennials need is good leadership and good examples to follow. We need to train people how to be leaders, or at the very least, set a good example. Not everybody is cut out to be a leader. Good leadership requires the choice to make personal and professional sacrifices. When things go well, other people will get the credit and when things go amiss you get the blame. You’re going to have to be the one to stay late or give up your free time so that you can show people what to do and how to do it. There is an inevitable price to be paid as you sacrifice your time for others. Leadership is a skill that can be mastered to a large extent by practising it, like all skills, but some people have more of a knack for it than others. Awareness and empathy are two of the major sub skills needed for successful leadership, especially of millennials.
It has to be explicitly clear that you are running a psychologically safe working environment where people are encouraged to ask for help. I still shudder at the memory of working in a language school where the owner was exceptionally demanding and highly temperamental. She insisted on every teacher submitting lesson plans for every single lesson two working days in advance. She would produce a scheme of work for external Cambridge exam classes and repeatedly change it as the course went on. But she never made consistent marks on the paper during these ‘discussions’ so that you could follow her ever changing train of thought. If you were unsure and asked later on, you would get a tirade in return. Not surprisingly, when a colleague and I were unsure of what some marks meant after a changing discussion, we both utterly dreaded the prospect of asking her. Terrifying strong, confident people into being scared of asking for clarification or help is not healthy. Little wonder the school has a brand new set of staff every single year!
Trying this approach with a generation that is more fragile is doomed to ignominious failure. You need a workplace where someone can simply walk into the manager’s office and say ‘I don’t know how to do this. I haven’t been trained how to do this. I need help.’ The problem that follows is whether people have the courage to walk through that door. This is why the culture has to be explicitly empathetic and supportive. It requires the effort to ask ‘are you okay?’ of people you might dislike as well as of those you like.
I don’t think people need inspiration to come to work, but they do need to feel valued and secure and supported in order for them to be at their best. One thing managing millennials has taught me is that there is a subtle but important difference between asking yourself how you get the best out of your teachers and how you get your teachers to be at their best. The subtle change in how you view people then bleeds over into how you manage them and how they respond to you.
One of the biggest challenges millennials often fail to accomplish is the formation of meaningful relationships, both personal and professional. A lot of this is due to impatience and a need for instant gratification. It’s why so many resign early and often. They are a generation with fulfilment and job satisfaction issues. How are we to combat this? A lot of the work has to be done by individuals themselves: we are all, ultimately, responsible for ourselves.
Nevertheless, if you’re the leader, everything starts with you. So lead by example and mentor the new, the inexperienced and the fragile as well as the older and more experienced. Embrace talking openly about your failures and your development with an emphasis on the long nature of the process. If the leader feels fine about discussing their failures and shortcomings and explaining how they approached them, then other people will feel secure in admitting when they are unsure or have made a mistake. And just like our language learners, people need to make mistakes without fear of belittlement. Then they can learn from them and develop. Have regular training sessions, both professional and in soft skills. Encourage your millennials to ask for critical feedback in everything they do. Encourage them to start a project and see it through – perhaps a reflective teaching journal or a reading list. And remind them that the process of improving their teaching quality will have an effect on their learners and make that positive difference that they crave!
Kruger J & Dunning D (1999) Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognising one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77 (6) 1121–1134.
Matthew Hallett has taught English for nine years in the UK, France and Italy. He has taught all ages and levels and retains a fondness for students who get the giggles in class. His current professional interests include writing marking codes, neural plasticity, being an accidental mentor to colleagues past and present, and reading about both thinking and leadership. Black coffee, puzzles, brioche and Bach feature prominently in his life.