08/30/2010 02:51 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How to Manage Me: Millennials and Communication

It's mid-afternoon and I overhear my boss pitching someone on the phone about the need for a housing first homeless shelter in Anchorage, Alaska. After a string of exposure-related deaths among the local homeless population over the last year, starting a housing first homeless shelter had become more important than ever. My boss didn't have the exact numbers on Anchorage homeless deaths at the beginning of his phone conversation, but luckily I knew someone who could help. I sent a text message to my social worker friend, who was working at a soup kitchen down the street. Minutes later and before my boss hung up the phone, he had the exact number of homeless deaths in writing on his desk ready to give to the person on the other line.

I'm 23, and I'm a millennial. Like the other 60 million or so men and women born between 1982 and 2001, I carry my network over into the business and non-profit world. We millenials have been networking since we set up our first AIM accounts; to us business lunches and conferences are a primitive form of networking. From Facebook to instant messaging, I can gather information quickly from a wide range of sources. Millennials can gather information quickly, and we expect to: we are children of Google.

Myths about millennials in the work place abound. Gen X and baby boomer managers have come to believe, as Bruce Tulgan pointed out, that millennials won't do grunt work, don't respect their elders, and want the top job from day one. To manage me, you have to understand how I grew up. Coming of age in a high-tech world has affected who millennials are and how they act in the workforce.

I went to author and historian Neil Howe, the man who coined the term "millennial generation." Howe has written several books on millennials, with William Strauss, including most recently Millennials in the Workplace. Military recruitment commercials, he says, exemplify the shift seen between Gen X and millennials. Gen X recruitment focused on "risk, the individual, and personal conquest," while millennial recruitment focuses on why we're fighting in the first place. Millennials, says Howe, "are looking to be on team that is more than just the some of it's parts." We millenials are looking for meaning in what we are doing.

"The drill sergeant won't yell at millenials when they get off the bus for basic training," says Howe, "They will thank them for their service in a time of war." That service, provides meaning.

The Parent Factor

This is most poignantly exemplified in the different military commercials used for Gen X and Gen Y. Whereas years ago Marines commercials featured a lone soldier braving adversity and squaring off against -- by today's standards -- a poorly-animated lava dragon, today's ads show young people explaining to their parents why they want to join up. This trend in inter-generational marketing, according to Howe, rests on the fact that "parents are being brought into the equation" in ways they weren't twenty years ago.

This degree of parental inclusion may strike some as odd, even overbearing, but millennials received more attention from parents than boomers and Gen X-ers. "This is a special generation," Howe says, "Everyone was special in the millennial generation." This may seem odd, because "no one thought Gen X managers were special when they came up in the world."

Teachers first observed this trend among millennial parents. Howe says "Parents have been the number one problem for teachers." This is because of the "helicopter parenting" phenomenon: parents constantly hover over their children to keep them safe and make sure they do well. Teachers often counter parental encroachment by asking parents to let them do their job. "If you tell parents, 'get out of here, I'm a professional,' you've created an enemy," Howe said, "Instead, partner with parents. It's like jiu-jitsu: you need to redirect the focus of parents." Helicopter parenting will likely carry over into the professional world. In the work place, Howe says that "first, managers will resist, but [they should] partner with parents. Parents are part of the conversation, just include them early."

The Generational Gap

Managing is a two-way relationship. People my age also need to understand our bosses' worldviews. Peter Brinkerhoff, nonprofit consultant and author of Generations: The Challenge of a Lifetime for Your Nonprofit, says finding an appropriate work/life balance and flextime are two of the main points of tension the millennial generation faces in the workplace. "We [boomers] think of work as being a place," he says: "If you're not at work, you're slacking off." We millennials however are consistently looking for a better work/life balance than our parents- who by in large were workaholics.

If I've finished my work, I want to go home early, play recreational soccer, and watch the Daily Show. Brinkerhoff says this is a source of disconnection between millennials and Boomers. "We [Boomers] take our work home, but we don't realize that you [millennials] do work at 3 p.m., 9 p.m., or 11 p.m.," says Brinkerhoff, "You're always wired so you always have the opportunity to work. We don't understand your level of connectedness."

This confusion owes to the fact that the schism between the millennial generation, Gen X, and baby boomers is much larger than in past generations. "It's not just age difference, it's a cultural difference," says Brinkerhoff. I know and grew up around technology that enabled me to speak and communicate in ways my parents could not have imagined. From our smart phones to our Facebook accounts, we are living in a connected world that allows us to work on the bus, on planes with Wi-fi, and at home after dinner -- and, for some of us, even during dinner. Work to us is not just one place: it's any place where there is a CAT-5 cable, Wi-Fi, or a 3G signal.

But there are limits. No email welcome can ever replace a good handshake. That's why Brinkerhoff emphasizes caution when finding a work/life balance. "All work/life balance choices are correct," he says, "but they are not all good for the organization. People need to be at meetings and helping clients, so there are limits." Brinkerhoff says the best way to address the work/life balance issue is to talk early about what is expected in terms of outcomes. Once outcomes are understood, managers and employees have clear expectations about work regardless of what the schedule looks like.

Don't Cut Us Off

A young woman at a conference told Brinkerhoff, "We have the keys to the kingdom. You have to listen to our discussion about tech or you're lost."

She was onto something critical. If the organization I now work for had a policy against instant messaging, I couldn't have gotten my boss the statistics he needed. Thanks in part to the coherent and fact-based arguments my connectedness helped my boss make, zoning for the new homeless shelter was recently approved. Don't take away our most potent communication tools: we millennials live on a network that includes our friends and our parents, and it can be a powerful tool for your business or non-profit. Brinkerhoff equates telling a 26-year old to not use Facebook to telling him or her not to breathe. Managers who want to get ahead need their millennial employees connected and networking--it's a natural skill set we already have when we walk in the door.

"If you have policies against IM's and Facebook, you are cutting off powerful tools of the millennials," says Howe, "If you're worried about them wasting time, simply give them more work."