Managing Millennials – Milkshakes Or Mutual Respect?

From an upcoming book – on the rise of the Millennial generation and what it means for society.

Co-authored by Evan Mitchell, Co-founder Millennial Brand Specialists HOW&Y

Way to go?

A recent report from the Harvard Law School, “Negotiating with Millennials – How to Overcome Cultural Differences in Communication”, highlighted how characteristics of the Millennial generation – their sense of entitlement, fanciful expectations of fast advancement, and craving for feedback, as long as it’s positive – create problems for those managing them. This is not a one-off, but a theme that’s recurring. As the Chicago Tribune also reports “Millennials, along with entering the workforce with unrealistic confidence and expectations, seem to have a problem with personal interaction and conflict resolution.”


The Future Will Be Non-Negotiable – The Coming Age Of Unresolvable Conflict

(At the risk of belabouring the point, we want to stress again that the negatively conceived characteristics of the Millennial mindset are not their fault. This generation has been shaped by dynamics beyond their control. See further What Created the Gen Y Consumer and The Future Will Be Non-Negotiable – The Coming Age of Unresolvable Conflict.)

According to the HLS, the responses of firms to this entitlement/indulgence issue included “happiness committees” offering candy apples and milkshakes, and organized management “thank you” campaigns. It’s clear that these, and other initiatives to placate a generation of employees, are driven by the belief that better understanding by management is the key to Millennial foibles. The emphasis is on supervisors being encouraged to educate themselves about “generational differences and trends.”

We get it that organizations are concerned not to blunt the positive attributes this generation brings to a workplace – self-confidence, innovativeness, adaptability, tech-savviness… – but where does the need for change really lie? Such education may improve the supervisors’ grasp of sociology, or perhaps jog their empathy. But what benefit will it be for the Millennial employees, to further entrench existing misconceived ideas and expectations of relationships – in the workplace and elsewhere? Such responses pass over a critical personal issue for this generation, continually documented – a chronic incapacity to negotiate when faced with apparent conflicts of interest.

To quote from a recent article of ours, “that the mindset and skills required to negotiate are on a demographic slide, doesn’t mean that the need to negotiate is any less real than it’s ever been. Negotiation is the glue that keeps society, and its institutions, from tearing apart. It’s well for organizations to contrive creative ways to engage their Gen Y employees. But to fail to respond vigorously to this impending crisis… that is not cool.” Continuing to kick this particular can down the road, will inevitably backfire on those organizations taking the indulgence option.

Unfortunately, too often this is the mentality and working environment that prevails in the private sector, particularly in service and tech industries, and even more in the government sector. The fact that it’s frequently the stuff of humour, doesn’t make it any less misguided and counter-productive. It rewards Millennial employees for not being able to perform tasks they should be able to perform. It demotivates them from acquiring essential skills. It subverts the very principles of conflict resolution that have always previously underlain business practice, internally and externally. It cedes authority to inexperience and further rewards that inexperience by making inexperience itself the basis of ongoing positive reinforcement.

Rationally, it’s the Millennial employees who need to change. And that change is as much a benefit to them, as it is to the organization.

A defining psychological characteristic of the Millennial generation is what psychologist Kenneth Keniston termed Omnipotentiality – the deeply held conviction that “I can be/do anything.” While in principle promoting beneficial self-belief and determination, its liabilities are too easily missed. Further danger comes in the likelihood of “I can be/do anything” veering even more erroneously into “I can be/do everything.” Indulging entitlement with no pushback indulges the sense of omnipotentiality. And indulging omnipotentiality is the single most lamentable way to damage potential.

Models of motivation

Truly inspired shapers of young minds have typically employed innovative approaches that were challenging, not indulging. Approaches that advanced mutual understanding in the face of divergent opinion.

Pop culture has regularly endorsed the inspiring impact of teachers who teach… and achieve both growth and devotion from their students. Think Sidney Poitier’s Mark Thackeray in To Sir with Love; Robin Williams’ John Keating in Dead Poets Society; Michelle Pfeiffer’s ex-Marine LouAnne Johnson, finding inner city teaching every bit as much a challenge as military combat in Dangerous Minds; Edward James Olmos nabbing an Oscar nomination playing real life math teacher Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver; Richard Dreyfuss’ own near Oscar grab as the eponymous Mr. Holland in Mr. Holland’s Opus; and Denzel Washington playing another character adaption from real life, as Coach Boon in Remember the Titans, inspiring values in his team that eclipsed what those students were being taught in the classroom.

These figures all had one thing in common. They sought to shape minds, giving them room but direction too. Not falling back from criticism when that was an essential part of the lesson. Allowing students latitude… but not only latitude. They nurtured open-minded wonder, free exchange of ideas, and mutual consideration in disagreement towards mutually beneficial reconciliation. In short, they did not merely indulge their students. In the face of disruptive behavior, they didn’t cave with unearned indulgences.

Cultural switch

The “bean bags and ping pong tables” ethos so recently prevalent, merely serves to infantilize Millennial employees. It’s in the hands of human resource departments to advocate an alternative approach and to champion a change of culture from Millennial dependence to Millennial resourcefulness.

The quickest and most effective way of achieving this is instilling the negotiation mindset earlier generations could take for granted. But which, through the social forces that shaped their upbringing, Millennials were denied. The capacity to negotiate constructively, rather than merely expecting demands to be granted, sustains an individual spirit and organizational culture of fair-minded mutual obligation.

A cautionary tale from a bunch who should have known better

Besides omnipotentiality, another defining characteristic of Gen Y is that they stay younger for longer. This has significant ramifications for Millennials as both consumers and employees. (For perspectives on the consequences of this Peter Pan syndrome for Gen Y as consumers see The Peter Pan Problem and Genesis of a Gen Y Brand.)

For organizations, the “never grow up, never grow old” mentality is unsurprisingly disruptive – to internal business practices, relationships, and the prevailing work atmosphere. Promoting the expectation of maturity in employee behaviour should be an organization’s aim, for the good of all. What chance that, though, when many industry leaders have got it so very wrong.

A recent Wall Street Journal article has exposed just to what extent – by indulging the generational excesses of its Millennial employees – Google has saddled itself with a situation of self-created and self-perpetuating internal disconnect. This is a cautionary tale on steroids. Especially in a company that presumes to present a model for others to follow.

Unbridled indulging of employees has created “a riot of pressure groups and causes.” Corporate culture has splintered into fractious shards of groupthink-dominated micro-cultures, all seemingly at war with each other. Different interest groups convert members then assert their rightness over others. Employees seem to spend an intemperate amount of time on internal chat services, forums, organized talks, organized opposition to organized talks…

You can’t help wondering whether the algorithms already do run things at Google since the current situation begs the question when are employees actually getting any actual work done?

Spokespeople for Google offered predictable band-aid comments about “lively debate” and how productive that is. The situation, however, reads as anything but. Debate requires acknowledged respect at both ends, intention to listen with an open mind, and adaptability towards compromise in order to move forward for the greater good. Google’s internal “debate”, on the other hand, is really a cacophony of disparate and disagreeing voices shouting over each other “it’s my turn now listen to me do what I say” – all self-important assertion with no concessions to understanding, rapprochement or cooperative reconciliation.

Three-point plan towards everyone’s self-interest

Strategic human resource management embraces career development, as a key element. High staff turnover rates of the prematurely disillusioned have much more than direct financial costs. Combative entitlement-driven tensions in place of cooperative conflict resolution create a toxic climate that becomes self-reinforcing. High expectations of undeserved praise set lower and lower expectations of actual job performance. Within their role, HR managers have the opportunity to be like those inspiring teachers of film and real life. They can guide, instruct, play mentor… and in so doing, foster further a company-wide ethos.

Negotiation comprises three essential and inextricable aspects – mindset, process, and skills.

Before Millennials can walk the walk they must first understand what negotiation actually is, and how it applies within conflict resolution generally. For them, attitudinal change must precede behavioral change. When that attitudinal change is made, when the generational mindset grasps the subtle dynamics of mutual commitment, the right process can then be integrated and the requisite skills built on. The first step – establishing a salient model of fair-minded mutual obligation in the resolution and reconciliation of any internally-arising conflict, dispute or simple difference of opinion. When Millennial supervisors are thinking this way, they’ll be more effective people managers and more valuable organizational assets. While for Millennial staff, such a mindset is a critically important element in their career and their personal development.

Organizational missions driven by generational misunderstanding (going both ways) too often result in cheap concessions of gratuitous privileges and indulged sensibilities. This is ultimately debasing for the corporate culture, and for the individual and social development of those who are essentially patronized.

Mutual self-interest, on the other hand, now that’s a foundation on which something valuable can be built, for Millennial employees and the organizations that employ them.

That challenge is over to the specialists in the organization whose job it is, who can do it best, and have the skills to make it work.


“Millennials struggle with confrontation at work.”, Chicago Tribune, November 19, 2012.

“Negotiating with Millennials – How to Overcome Cultural Differences in Communication”, Program on Negotiation, Harvard Law School, February 13, 2018.

Brian Mitchell & Evan Mitchell, “What Created the Gen Y Consumer”, BizCatalyst 360°, January 2016.

Brian Mitchell & Evan Mitchell, “The Future Will Be Non-Negotiable – The Coming Age of Unresolvable Conflict.”, BizCatalyst 360°, April 2018.

Evan Mitchell and Brian Mitchell, “Rage against the machine”, The Australian, April 20, 2018.

Kenneth Keniston, Youth, and Dissent, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.

Brian Mitchell and Evan Mitchell, “Gen Ys: Peter Pans Who Refuse to Grow Up (and why it’s bad news for marketers”, B&T, May 26, 2016.

Brian Mitchell and Evan Mitchell, “Genesis of a Gen Y Brand”, BizCatalyst360°, April 2016.

“Google vs. Google: How Nonstop Political Arguments Rule Its Workplace”, The Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2018.


Brian Mitchell
Brian Mitchell
Brian Mitchell and Evan Mitchell write extensively on psychological themes, with scores of published articles on three continents. Brian has a clinical Ph.D. and a significant period as a therapist. Evan has Honors degrees in Psychology and English Literature, and also extensive practical experience. They have two published books. The well-reviewed hardcover The Psychology of Wine: truth and beauty by the glass ( ) – Praeger US (and now in eBook edition) explored the aesthetics of wine and art and their psychological possibilities. This led to the storyline and structure of their upcoming literary thriller The Last Cave, an action narrative of suspense and surprise in the mode of Terry Hayes’ I am Pilgrim. Prior to writing full-time, the pair conducted a successful US consulting operation specializing in negotiation effectiveness. Subsequently extended to generational studies on decision making tendencies by Gens Y and Z in the consumer world and politics.They can be reached through [email protected]

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  1. Brian, Great article and challenge to all of us to assert the importance of understanding another’s mindset and goals. The art and science of negotiation have been tainted with the word compromise. Critical thinking has lost out in our schools to test preparation and finding the single right answer. I encourage the use of a six mindset framework to collect information and evaluate options before jumping to conclusions. We need to understand the other party’s point of view before we try to influence, negotiate or select an action plan. Simple answers are rare in our complex world.

    • Mary, thanks for your very apposite thoughts. Critical thinking, as it should be, has indeed lost out in our schools. Unfortunately, its evil twin “critical thinking”, a la the Frankfurt School, is all too prominent through our education system. A return to a few fundamental skills, among them negotiation, would be a great educational and vocational improvement.

    • Since I am a proponent of critical thinking, I would like to know more about the Frankfurt School approach. It is always interesting to see the different approaches to the same terms. Love the idea of teaching negotiation.