Ask Alban: Managing Millennials

8 Apr

Q. Our congregation recently called an energetic and talented young clergy leader. The congregation loves and respects her leadership.  However, there are some problems brewing around work style.  She continually disregards her scheduled office hours and doesn’t respond to telephone or email messages in a timely manner. I am head of staff.  Is this something that I should crack down on as a supervisor, or is it a generational difference that I should try to understand and honor?  How can I help her better manage her relationship with others on the team who are increasingly frustrated by this behavior?

A. The short answer to your question is that the tensions you are experiencing are likely related to generational differences. Your role as a supervisor is to help members of your team appreciate, acknowledge and arbitrate their differences related to behavioral preferences, and then to set reasonable boundaries that allow the full team to function effectively together.

Tamara Erickson is a widely respected author and speaker on managing different generations in the workplace.  She explains that generational characteristics are shaped by members’ shared experiences during their pre-and early teen years. Millennials were born between 1980 and 2000.  Members of this generation shared two important experiences in their formative years: terrorism and technology[i].

Early exposure to terrorism has taught this generation that the world can be unsafe; it is random and unpredictable. The logical response to this exposure is to make the most of today and to live every day to the fullest.  A sense of immediacy is one of this generation’s more observable characteristics. They live in the here and now. Their most pressing questions are whether the activities they are doing right now are challenging, meaningful and enjoyable.

Unlike the generations before them, Millennials are not institutionally driven and don’t particularly value participation in institutional life. Staff team practices like “assigned office hours” make no reasonable sense to them. Millennial pastors tend to approach their work in highly relational ways. They find meaning in work that is engaged outside of the church building, in environments that meet people where they live, work and play. They feel stifled by forced time in an office setting.

Millennials also came of age in a world that was wired with technology.  The have intuitively absorbed things that the rest of us had to learn intellectually. Living with technology has taught Millennials that not every communication needs to be dealt with, and different forms of communication carry different response expectations.  Millennials focus on managing technology and communication in ways that are helpful and productive to them, not intrusive or anxiety-producing. Many in this generation operate with clear and simple rules about how to manage communication with technology. E-mail only if you must send a document, and don’t expect a response.  Send a text message to coordinate or address an immediate need. Share general information, updates and photos on Facebook. Never leave a phone message, unless it is for someone “older”. In short, Millennials show a preference for semi-synchronous writing, instead of synchronous voice[ii].

None of these preferences in communication are problematic when Millennials are dealing with members of their own generation.  However, most of our congregations are populated with staff and members that function with different expectations and behavioral patterns, formed by their own generational preferences.  When someone observes behaviors that are inconsistent with expected norms, they tend to attribute rudeness and disrespect to the one demonstrating those behaviors.

So, what is your role as head of staff in resolving these differences and setting boundaries around behavior? Erickson recommends a four-fold response[iii].

Appreciate: Withhold your own judgment for a period of time. Watch her behavior and see if you can glean the benefits that go along with the choices that she makes.  Millennials are innately innovative, they value and appreciate diversity, they are masterful coordinators and gifted at building networks. In what ways do the behaviors that irritate you allow these other characteristics to flourish?

Acknowledge:  Share some articles or insights about generational differences in the workplace with your team. Help the team realize that one behavioral pattern isn’t inherently better than another, just different. Ask each team member to articulate some of their own preferences, and to explain how those preferences help them engage effectively in ministry.

Arbitrate: Help team members articulate the difference between their needs and their wants.  Needs stem from legitimate and essential duties and obligations. For example, a staff member has a legitimate need to know where the clergy leader is when trying to contact her, in order to deal with a pastoral care crisis.  Wants stem from preferences and conveniences. A staff member may want the clergy leader to keep regular office hours, because the staff member finds it unfair that clergy staff don’t have to account for their whereabouts.  Define acceptable behavior patterns for the collective team on the basis of legitimate need.

Adapt: Continue to help the team appreciate their differences and check in with one another as they live into a new, mutually built set of expectations.


[i] Tamara J Erickson, “The Millennials” at www.thersa.org/fellowship/journal/archive/summer-2012

[ii] Tamara Erickson, Plugged in: The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work, (Boston:Harvard Business Press, 2008).

[iii] Tamara J Erickson, “The Four A’s”, Diversity Executive, May/June 2012.

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