A colleague of mine called me a few weeks ago fuming about one of his Millennial employees blowing a sales presentation because of a communication issue he hadn’t encountered before. He was confused by this experience because his employee heretofore had been a high performer. The employee was bewildered, as he thought he was doing a great job until the end of the presentation, when the clients said flatly, “We’ll get back to you”. What happened? Why did it happen? What can you quickly teach your device-centric Millennial employees?
The communication issue was that this millennial employee couldn’t read the body language and facial expressions of the client representatives in the room. He missed every posture and gesture cue coming from the clients, didn’t make enough eye contact to realize that he wasn’t giving the clients time to respond, and missed numerous micro-facial expressions that would have told him he was off track. Adding to this disaster-in-the-making, my colleague had no idea how to stop the train wreck without making his employee look inept.
Why Did it Happen?
We could ascribe this situation to inexperience, nerves, or lack of preparation. However, my colleague explained that this employee hadn’t shown any of these issues in the team he worked with. Ronald Alsop brilliantly captures the ‘why’ of the above scenario,
“Because of such extensive reliance on online communication, many Millennials — the generation born during the 1980s and 1990s — have missed out on valuable face-to-face interactions and failed to learn how to speak in a polished manner, listen attentively and read other people’s expressions and body language. As a result, employers are finding that their young hires are awkward in their interpersonal interactions and ill-prepared to collaborate effectively with teammates and develop relationships with clients” (Alsop, Critical Skills New Hires Lack, 2013).
Through no fault of their own, while the millennial brain was developing the capacity for online social networking, neural circuits for one-on-one personal communication were beginning to atrophy (Pew, 2015). As a result, the level of social intelligence the previous generations possessed is not present. The Millennials and the generation that follows will have a tough time gaining a passible level of ability to read the nuances of body language and facial expressions. Whether it be in one’s personal or professional life, this communication deficit impacts every interaction no matter the situation or the people involved.
Not all Millennials suffer from this deficit. If they were lucky, their parents socialized them in a way where boundaries were put in place as to cell phone usage and internet time; person to person social graces were taught, and family time was interactive and cell free.
What Can You Do?
As managers from a different generation, it is incumbent upon us to recognize the symptoms of this deficit, and make proactive decisions as to how to handle incoming Millennial employees before any damage is done to the reputation of the business or the employee.
Step One is helping your employee become more aware of non-verbals and body language in others, and understand what they mean. Integrating an interactive Decoding Body Language module into employee orientation is an essential first step. The module ought to include the basics below. These basics will, at minimum, give the employee a starting place in understanding non-verbal nuances.
I. Non-verbal communication clues
Non-verbals have many roles in conversation. They can repeat the message the person is making verbally, they can contradict a message the individual is trying to convey, they can substitute for a verbal message (depth of eye contact), they may add to or complement a verbal message (a pat on the back), they may accent or underline a verbal message (pounding the table). (Wertheim, 2008)
II. Classifying Observable Behavior
- Confident people stand tall, have pleasant eye contact, gesture deliberately, speak normally and clearly, and their tone or pitch is moderate
- Defensive people do not face you directly, make minimal eye contact, use minimal gestures, and restrict their facial expressions
- Un-engaged people slump, play with objects, keep their head down, and use the 1,000-yard stare to look through you, not at you
- Deceitful people make little eye-contact, do not face you directly, and show signs of elevated blood pressure-rapid breathing, sweating, reddening complexion, and change of pitch and pace in the voice
- Reflective people look away to reflect and make eye contact when answering, will put finger on chin or hand to cheek, and will tilt their head while looking up
III. The Meaning of inconsistencies
- Consider all of the non-verbal signals you are receiving, eye contact, tone, and body language. Taken together, are their non-verbal cues consistent—or inconsistent—with their verbal message? The brain processes verbal and non-verbal communication instantaneously and does notice, on a subconscious level, when there is a mismatch between the spoken word and the body language accompanying it.
- Trust your instincts. Even if you aren’t able to pinpoint a mismatch between the verbal and non-verbal message, don’t ignore your gut feeling. It is based on something real.
Step Two is motivating your employee. Stein, in Forbes.com wrote, “They are impatient, eager for new experiences, and they thrive on short-term goals with visible results. Managers must help them identify opportunities to develop new skills.” (Forbes, 2016) Help them understand that the more skilled they become in this area, the more success they will have in terms of immediate results and long-term career growth. As part of motivating them, be fair and frequent with your feedback. After a while, they will be able to see their own strides in body language awareness.
Step Three is practice. Create weekly half-hour scenario body language meetings where role playing will give employees practice in observing and reacting to body language. The fact that management is willing to spend the time and money to execute these meetings tells your employee you really are serious about their growth. By including Gen X and Boomers in these role-plays, the practice is real, and gives all of the generations involved insight into the communication styles of each generation. Remember to throw some levity in a role-play once in a while, as an added benefit of this type of training is team cohesion, and the beginning of mentoring relationships.
Next time you become frustrated with a Millennial employee’s body language decoding deficit, remember they don’t know what is holding them back. Your awareness of their issue, and giving them tools to resolve the deficit, can be the turning point in their professional growth.
Edward G. Wertheim, Ph.D., The Importance of Effective Communication
Stein, Eduardo. Nine Tips for Managing Millennials. Sept, 2016. https://www.forbes.com/sites/iese/2016/09/08/managing-millennials-nine-tips/#95cda68cd8af