Negotiating with Millennials – How to Overcome Cultural Differences in Communication

How to overcome cultural barriers in communication with the millennial generation - negotiating skills for all ages

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Negotiation training often focuses on bridging gaps between negotiators with different styles, backgrounds, or objectives, but what about overcoming generational barriers while negotiating? Generational differences need not stymie efforts at the bargaining table. In this segment from “Dear Negotiation Coach,” from Negotiation Briefings, we explore how to overcome cultural differences in communication with members of the Millennial generation.

A Question About Negotiating:

Dear Negotiation Coach, 

Over the past few years, employees who have joined my firm directly from undergraduate and graduate programs have seemed to me like creatures from a different world. In particular, they don’t expect to have to struggle to get ahead, and they don’t take criticism well. How can I negotiate with them in a way that will be effective, while keeping them happy and me sane?

Discover step-by-step techniques for avoiding common business negotiation pitfalls when you download a copy of the FREE special report, Business Negotiation Strategies: How to Negotiate Better Business Deals, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

ANSWER: As compared with the baby boomers or the Generation Xers who followed, many members of the Millennial Generation—adults born after 1981 who have been entering the workforce since 2000—seem to approach work life with a sense of entitlement, a craving for praise, and an expectation that they will ascend the organizational ladder quickly.

More-seasoned supervisors are sometimes taken off-guard by these young upstarts. For example, efforts by law firms to slow the attrition rates of young associates by raising base pay and increasing bonuses have had little impact, Alex Williams of the New York Times reports. In response, some firms have unveiled new approaches to keeping Millennials satisfied. These range from “happiness committees” that offer candy apples and milkshakes to concerted efforts by partners to thank and commend associates for their hard work.

Negotiating with Millennials can be challenging, but keep in mind that this generation of workers is a highly motivated, creative, and fast-thinking group. The key to dealing with them is to understand that they’ve been raised to expect a workplace that is worker-focused, transparent, and collaborative. In particular, aim to do the following three things when negotiating with Millennials in your organization:

Educate yourself about generational differences and trends.

Though it’s safe to assume that most employees would prefer more money and benefits rather than less, many Millennials prioritize their interests differently. For example, they may be more likely to value autonomy and flexibility in the workplace than their predecessors. While inwardly respectful of experience, Millennials may not defer immediately to authority and may respond more favorably to a less-formal workplace. Before making assumptions about their interests, take time to inquire about what matters most to your younger staffers.

Increase transparency.

Consistent with research extolling the value of individual participation in decision-making processes, Millennials will be more inclined to respond cooperatively to decisions, even unfavorable ones, if they’ve been consulted as part of a transparent process. Raised to believe that their views matter, they respond negatively to decisions made without broad consultation. Thus, when negotiating with them, focus on being open and clear in your communications. To bolster the legitimacy of your decisions and convey the respect that Millennials require, take time to describe the reasoning behind your thinking.

Address problems jointly.

When negotiating with Millennials, stress the value of working together to find solutions to tough problems. In addition to appealing to Millennials’ desire for inclusion and autonomy, this approach may generate options you wouldn’t have come up with on your own (for more information on how to mediate a dispute, see also
Employee Mediation Techniques – Resolve Disputes and Manage Conflict with These Mediation Techniques).

By taking the time to learn Millennials’ interests, increase transparency, and include them in the problem-solving process, you will increase productivity, prolong job satisfaction, and create better intergenerational business relationships (for more information on bridging the divide between different cultures or worldviews, see also
How to Resolve Cultural Conflict: Overcoming Cultural Barriers at the Negotiation Table).

What negotiating methods have helped you? Have we missed any? Share your tips in the comments.

Discover step-by-step techniques for avoiding common business negotiation pitfalls when you download a copy of the FREE special report, Business Negotiation Strategies: How to Negotiate Better Business Deals, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Related Business Negotiations Article:  Best Negotiation Examples: Integrative Negotiations, Value Creation, and Creativity at the Bargaining Table – How to create value at the negotiation table using integrative bargaining strategies.

Overcoming Cultural Barriers to a Negotiated Agreement: Negotiation Ethics and International Negotiations – How understandings of ethics and negotiation tactics differ across cultural backgrounds and how to reconcile these differences.

Examples of Negotiation in Real Life: Overcoming Cultural Barriers at the Negotiation Table in International Negotiations – How to bridge the divide between negotiating counterparts from different cultural backgrounds.

Adapted from “Managing the Millennial Generation,” by Robert C. Bordone (professor, Harvard Law School) and Matthew J. Smith (lecturer, Harvard Law School), first published in the Negotiation Briefings newsletter.

Originally published in August 2010.

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No Responses to “Negotiating with Millennials – How to Overcome Cultural Differences in Communication”

  • Koos H.

    Seems to me this advice is not only valid for Millennials. I believe all workers will perform better if approached like this.

  • Irene Z.

    Thanks! This article gave good insight and I found it helpful. Irene Zucker

  • At the root of the problem is the self-esteem movement of the 1980s into the 2000s,which required teachers to tell children that 2+2=7 was ‘a very good effort’ rather than ‘Your calculation is wrong. Try again.’ That is why so many Millenials cannot handle constructive criticism, and expect instantaneous agreement with whatever idea, demand or interpretation they present. Anything that fouls up is someone else’s fault. In my experience, few of them understand the give and take, ebb and flow of intelligent, empathetic negotiation.

  • Jeff J.

    Millenials typically look at the world by what they can give. Previous generations look at what they can get. This puts companies in an odd position as they now have to look at how to approach this giving mindset. The giving mindset is confusing for some because it looks ego-centric. A company has to now ask themselves, what am I giving my customers, and what am I giving my workers, beyond money and monetary assets. I have only found one or two people that handled criticism well in the workplace. As the saying goes, “business is personal.”


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