[Book Review] Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials by Bruce Tulgan

by Scott Crabtree

Have you had a chance to manage millennials? With millennials quickly becoming the largest segment of the workforce, you’ve probably worked with one, whether you’re a millennial yourself or part of an older generation. Especially if you belong to an older generation, I’d bet several months of income that, like GenX me, you’ve found it challenging at times — and awesome at others.

Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials by Bruce Tulgan is a guide to making millennial management better for everyone involved. While it doesn’t get a trophy, it’s a helpful, data- and experience-based book that can help us better engage across generational differences.

This book was recommended to me by the wonderful Dr. Alan Cabelly, of Portland Leadership Institute. He and I collaborated on a new talk: “Using Brain Science to Engage Across Generational and Age Differences.” We presented it at the NHRMA 2018 Conference in September of last year. If I sound smart in this review, there’s a good chance I’m sharing a perspective I learned from him!

Generalizing millennials

Generalizations are generally dangerous. It’s always important to manage individuals rather than stereotypes. Keep in mind that millennials include liberals and conservatives, urbanites and rural dwellers, and members of many races and cultures — just like other generational groups.

And yet, some of the most useful content in the book includes generalizations about millennials. Especially for any millennials reading this review, let me state clearly that every person is different, and I have worked with millennials who don’t fully match the description below. Perhaps those of you reading this will think, “What?!? I’m a millennial, and that doesn’t sound like me!” Again, it’s important to view others as individuals and avoid over-generalizing. However, these observations may provide insights to assist with understanding and managing some millennial employees.

While dangerous, some generalizations are still useful

A few of the key generalizations Tulgan points out about millennials include:

  • They were the most actively parented generation in history. Many GenX and Boomer parents earned the term “helicopter parents” because they hovered over their kids. Therefore, many millennials want active involvement from their managers. While everyone needs autonomy, they want supervisors who provide helpful guidance and check in regularly.
  • Millennials were also the most scheduled kids in history. While they need freedom, many are also comforted by a regular schedule. A regular schedule complements their need to have freedom in how they do their work.
  • Many millennials’ parents have taken their opinions seriously throughout their lives and involved them in meaningful decisions. While previous generations may have started their first jobs expecting to be ignored or blown off by older adults, millennials may enter with the expectation that everyone will be interested in — and excited by — their ideas for the organization. That is, millennials may have a higher-than-usual need to have their input taken seriously at work.

Of course, adjusting your management style to show that you’re seriously considering others’ input can boost employee engagement for everyone — not just millennials. People are more engaged when they feel their opinions matter. In fact, one of Gallup’s 12 statements that measure employee engagement specifically captures this with the statement: “At work, my opinions seem to count.”

In general, the insights shared in the book can help anyone who’s struggling to manage millennials do a better job — which may lead to doing a better job with other employees, as well.

Why this book doesn’t get a trophy

So what are the problems in the book? I found 3 main issues:

1. The author frequently mentions his “research”

Well, not all research is equal. If you read other reviews of books on my recommended reading list, you’ll generally find that if I’m recommending a book, a Ph.D. scientist wrote it and cited high quality, peer-reviewed studies along the way. Neither is true here. Tulgan is not a Ph.D., and most of the research he mentions seems to be conversations with people in organizations and at his workshops. That might be valid data, but in my opinion, it can’t be trusted as much as experimental data that’s been peer-reviewed and published in a journal.

2. Tulgan advises a no-friendship approach with millennials

Tulgan repeatedly argues that managers should not try to be friends with millennials whom they’re managing. In multiple instances, he specifically and strongly recommends against having personal conversations with them. Several solid studies I’m aware of suggest this advice is off-base. We all need relatedness in our lives, including at work. Warm relationships boost happiness, which fuels success. Certainly, we need to maintain appropriate professional boundaries and avoid conflicts of interest with people we supervise. But avoiding close connections with millennials — or anyone else at work for that matter — is a big mistake.

3. Many challenges raised are not specific to millennials

Many of the challenges the author describes are really just the challenges of managing younger adults. Employees under 25 years old, for example, don’t have a fully “firmed up” prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain involved in executive functioning, including self-awareness, self-control, initiating appropriate action, and inhibiting inappropriate action). Tulgan acknowledges that some of what he’s describing has more to do with characteristics of young people than the millennial generation, per se. However, he too often offers advice about managing without being specific about whether the issue at hand is grounded in age vs. generational differences.

Tips to manage millennials at key employment phases

Despite these flaws, the book helpfully identifies 9 key employment phases and suggests strategies to manage millennials during each phase:

  1. Recruiting millennials to want to join your company
  2. Interviewing and selecting the best millennial candidates
  3. Onboarding millennials successfully
  4. Giving millennials the gift of context
  5. Helping millennials care about great customer service
  6. Teaching millennials how to manage themselves
  7. Teaching millennials how to be managed
  8. Retaining your best millennial employees, one day at a time
  9. Training the next generation of leaders for your organization

Managing people can be very difficult. The “soft skill” of working with other people is often the most challenging part of our jobs. As I often say, “The soft stuff is the hard stuff.” The hard work of managing people can be especially challenging when older generations are working with younger generations. While Tulgan’s book doesn’t get a trophy, Not Everyone Gets a Trophy can be a valuable tool to effectively engage and manage millennials.

As always, I want to hear your thoughts. Have you read the book? If so, what did you think? If you haven’t read it, does this review make you want to read it?

Scott Crabtree

As the Founder and Chief Happiness Officer at Happy Brain Science, Scott Crabtree empowers individuals and organizations to apply findings from cutting-edge neuroscience and psychology to boost productivity and happiness at work.

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