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Five tips for surviving the millennial apocalypse

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

What's the big deal about working with millennials? A lot of energy gets taken up in discussions about what's referred to as the millennial generation. This generation – roughly defined as those born between 1982 and 2000 – is entering the work force in big numbers. If you believe what you read, they are impossible to understand and think unlike any humans in history.

I admit, I've participated in such discussions. I was led to believe it was important because this generation was so dramatically different that I was ignoring it at my peril as a business owner.

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But the more I read and the more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that we are looking for a solution to a problem that doesn't actually exist. Or at least, is the gulf any wider than the one my older and more experienced colleagues experienced when my generation, Generation X, entered the work force? Absolutely not. My experience with younger colleagues is incredibly rewarding and makes our company a better place. So here are my top tips for avoiding the millennial apocalypse.

1. Recognize their differences

First, stop thinking of them as a homogeneous group and stop calling them millennials. The young people I work with came to us armed with varying backgrounds and interests. No two are the same. If you think about it, they are the first truly digital generation, but that just means they engage others differently and have more options.

They did not grow up waiting for a morning paper to arrive. They do not buy an entire CD just to own their favourite song. They have choice and they are empowered. This doesn't mean they don't care about news and important issues, nor does it mean they are self-entitled. What it does mean is that they know how to search for what they want; they seek out opinions, ask a lot of questions and make informed decisions.

2. Be willing to adapt

Second, find out what each person values and adjust your style to make the relationship productive. This can lead to changes in work culture that are brought about by the changing attitudes ushered in by younger employees, but will benefit the organization.

Our firm, for example, introduced a policy of flex hours. We let people choose the hours they work, within the parameters of the business day. They can start a little earlier or later, in exchange for finishing work earlier or later. We also let them pop out for extracurricular activities and make up the time later. This requires trust on the part of management, but in our experience, it carries little risk. Our experience has been incredible. Flex hours are hugely popular, and not just with the youngest in the office.

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3. Share praise

Third, reward with praise, mentoring and compensation. Don't think it's only about money, or only about title. But don't underestimate the importance of those either.

We provide recognition in a number of ways, beyond remuneration and promotion. We give it privately for a job well done or for taking risks that put them in a new or uncomfortable situation. We share success publicly – office wide – when teams and people succeed.

We also empower everyone in our office to reward their colleagues through a program we call RARs: random acts of recognition. A RAR has a modest monetary value, but the real value is in the peer recognition. Anyone can reward a colleague and the RAR is presented publicly by our president. It is a quick little ceremony that shakes up the morning or afternoon at the office, and gets people talking and congratulating one another. It truly is a gift that is just as rewarding to give as it is to receive, as it allows everyone, including millennials, to step up and take on the role of sharing praise.

4. Spur on their competitive instinct

Fourth, don't assume they can't handle responsibility. Young workers have been accused of growing up in a time where all soccer games ended in a tie (so there were no losers) and where you could not fail in school. They are, in fact, competitive. They take great pride in surpassing expectations or being given extra responsibility.

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5. Ask what they think

Fifth, be open-minded and realize they have much to offer. They engage with the world in different ways, they consume information, art, music and the environment around them with different filters than you do – just like Gen Xers differ from baby boomers and so on. Like all of us, they like to be asked what they think and they rise to challenges and see them as opportunities.

My advice? Be a leader and demonstrate what leadership means within your organization. Earn their respect and let them earn yours. Show a willingness to listen, adapt and take their input seriously. And then you won't have to worry about a millennial apocalypse. Zombies, on the other hand … .

David Wills is senior vice-president at Toronto-based public relations firms Media Profile (@MediaProfile).

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