Managers tell us every day in our research some version of what one middle-aged manager once told me: “When I was young and inexperienced, I may have been naïve or immature, but I knew enough to wear a tie, make eye contact, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘yes sir’ and ‘yes ma’am,’ and when to shut up and keep my head down and do the grunt work without having to be told over and over again.”

Indeed, the incidence and insistence of managers complaining about the soft skills of their new young workers has risen steadily year after year since we began tracking it in the mid-1990s, which is when Generation Xers were the “new dogs” on the scene.

Common manager complaints

Specifically, which issues do managers, including carwash managers, complain about most? Here are some examples of what managers most often say about younger workers according to our research:

  • “They are unprofessional.”
  • “They have no self-awareness.”
  • “They don’t take personal responsibility or hold themselves accountable.”
  • “They need an attitude adjustment.”
  • “Their work habits are terrible.”
  • “Their people skills are terrible.”
  • “They don’t know how to think, learn or communicate without checking a device.”
  • “They don’t think critically.”
  • “They don’t know how to problem-solve, make decisions or plan.”
  • “They have problems deferring to authority.”
  • “They don’t appreciate context and see where they fit in.”
  • “They have no sense of self-sacrifice for the greater good.”
  • “What ever happened to citizenship, service, and teamwork?”

There is a growing gap between the expectations of employers and the reality of how today’s new young talent is showing up in the workplace, including at carwashes. Today’s young stars may well show up with the latest and greatest tools and tricks. Indeed, many of them seem to have developed almost “superpowers” in their chosen areas of interest and focus. They are often masters of the newfangled. What they are missing — way too often and more and more — are the old-fashioned basics, what many refer to as “the soft skills.”

Related article: How to hire and retain millennials

Overcoming soft skill development challenges

Of course, the older, more experienced workers at your carwash may be more or less annoyed by the attitudes and behavior of each successive new young generation. New young employees are, by definition, always younger and less experienced and, therefore, lacking in the corresponding maturity and patience.

As they step into the adult world with youthful energy and enthusiasm, young workers often clash with their older colleagues. That is always part of the story. But there is something much bigger going on here:

  • Globalization. Second wave millennials (born 1990-2000) will be the first truly global generation — connecting and traveling to work across borders in every direction and combination. Unlike any other generation in history, millennials can look forward to a lifetime of interdependency and competition with a rising global youth-tide from every corner of this ever-flattening world.
  • Technology. The pace of technological advance today is unprecedented. Information. Computing. Communication. Transportation. Commerce. Entertainment. Food. Medicine. War. In every aspect of life, anything can become obsolete any time — possibilities appear and disappear swiftly, radically and often without warning.
  • The information environment. Second wave millennials are the first true “digital natives.” They learned how to think, learn and communicate in a never-ending ocean of information. Theirs is an information environment defined by wireless internet ubiquity, wholesale technology integration, infinite content and immediacy. From a dangerously young age, their infinite access to information and ideas and perspectives — unlimited words, images and sounds — is completely without precedent.
  • Virtual reality. It’s not just that they are always looking down at their hand-held devices. Millennials are always totally plugged into an endless stream of content and in continuous dialogue — through social-media-based chatting and sharing and gaming — with peers (and practical strangers) however far away (or near) they might be. They are forever mixing and matching and manipulating from an infinite array of sources to create and then project back out into the world their own ever-changing personal montage of information, knowledge, meaning and selfhood.

Millennial myths and realities

Millennials have been much analyzed but, I believe, largely misunderstood. Though in recent years many so-called experts have jumped on the bandwagon of tackling the challenge of “managing Millennials,” nearly everyone I know of is simply reinforcing prevailing misconceptions about this generation.

Here are the fourteen most common myths about millennials’ attitude toward work and career that carwash owners should be aware of:

  • Myth #1: Millennials are disloyal and unwilling to make real commitments to their employers.
    Reality
    : They can be very loyal, but they don’t exhibit the kind of loyalty you find in a kingdom. Instead, they offer the kind of loyalty you get in a free market — that is, transactional loyalty.
  • Myth #2: They won’t do the grunt work.
    Reality
    : They are so eager to prove themselves — to you and to themselves ¾ that they will do anything you want them to do. But they won’t do anything if they start to fear that nobody is keeping track of what they are doing and giving them credit.
  • Myth #3: They don’t know very much and have short attention spans.
    Reality
    : They think, learn and communicate in sync with today’s information environment.
  • Myth #4: They want the top job on day one.
    Reality: They want to hit the ground running on day one.
  • Myth #5: They need work to be fun.
    Reality: Millennials don’t want to be humored; they want to be taken seriously. But they do want work to be engaging.
  • Myth #6: They want to be left alone.
    Reality: If they actually care one bit about the job, they want managers who know who they are, know what they are doing, are highly engaged with them, provide guidance, help them solve problems and keep close track of their successes.
  • Myth #7: They want their managers to do their work for them.
    Reality: They want managers who will spend time teaching them how to do their work very well and very fast.
  • Myth #8: They don’t care about climbing the proverbial career ladder.
    Reality: Millennials’ career paths will be erratic and eclectic, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be progressive and developmental.
  • Myth #9: Money and traditional benefits don’t matter to them.
    Reality
    : Of course, money and benefits matter to them. They want to get the best deal they can get. But money and benefits are only a threshold issue.
  • Myth #10: Money is the only thing that matters to them (the opposite of the previous myth, but also widely held by managers who can’t believe how brazenly millennials demand money).
    Reality
    : Again, money is a threshold issue. If they are asking for more, what they are really asking is, “What do I need to do to earn more?”
  • Myth #11: They don’t respect their elders.
    Reality: They do respect their elders; but, they want respect too.
  • Myth #12: They want to learn only from computers.
    Reality
    : From computers, they want to learn stuff that is easy to learn from computers. But, they absolutely need the human element to do their best learning.
  • Myth #13: It’s impossible to turn them into long-term employees.
    Reality
    : You can turn them into long-term employees. You’ll just have to do it one day at a time.
  • Myth #14: They will never make good managers because they are so self-focused.
    Reality: Of course, they can be good managers. They just have to learn the basics and then practice, practice, practice.

I tell employers that what millennials need is not always the same as what they want. The problem is that giving them what they need successfully is much harder than simply handing them what they want.

The high-maintenance millennial generation workforce calls for strong leadership, not weak. Managers should never undermine their authority; never pretend that the job is going to be more fun than it is; never suggest that a task is within the discretion of a millennial if it isn’t; never gloss over details; never let problems slide; and never offer praise and rewards for a performance that is not worthy of them.

Instead, managers should spell out the rules of their workplace in vivid detail so millennials can play that job like a video game — if you want A, you have to do B and if you want C, you have do D and so on.

If you want high performance out of this generation, you better commit to high-maintenance management. Whether you like it or not, millennials need you to help them form new bonds with your organization, their new roles, new colleagues and you, their manager. They need you to guide, direct and support them every step of the way. In return, you’ll get the highest-performance workforce in carwash history.

Related article: Managing millennials at work 


Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014) and It’s Okay to be the Boss (Revised & Updated, 2014). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his website www.rainmakerthinking.com.