Millennials aren’t coddled—they just reject abuse as a management tactic

Younger employees keep getting stereotyped as insecure and needy. Perhaps the rest of us need to reconsider why we find it normal for bosses to be jerks


Recently, the University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine circulated a video meant to make its instructors aware of “student mistreatment.” With a minor-chord piano medley providing the soundtrack, viewers were asked to avoid putting students on the spot with questions, to minimize “cold and clinical” interactions, and to cultivate “safe” learning environments for the young residents.

It seems a little like something created by The Onion, but the video was sincere, and its message will be familiar to a lot of employers dealing with people in their 20s. For many who remember what business was like pre-Internet, millennials seem an appallingly sensitive lot, having been protected from the vagaries of the world by helicopter parents, trigger warnings and—to especially cynical critics—sheer narcissism. “Aren’t young people coddled?” is now as safe an icebreaker as, “Did you see last night’s Seinfeld?” would have been 20 years ago.

It’s a stereotypical view and, of course, an incomplete one. But there’s no doubt younger workers are changing the interpersonal dynamics of the modern workplace, much as they’ve already done in high schools and universities. And I have news for you, my fellow judgmental old people: That’s a good thing.

For decades—centuries—the archetype of the successful business person has been the sneering blowhard, unafraid to bark orders and excoriate the work of underlings. He (let’s be honest, it’s traditionally a he) leads with a charming mix of ego, hair-trigger temper and intimidation. The fictional Gordon Gekko is the poster boy, but real-world examples abound: Rupert Murdoch, Anna Wintour, Larry Ellison, Kevin O’Leary, Donald Trump. Steve Jobs, brilliant as he was, was an often vicious and tyrannical boss.

The influence of such titans has created the expectation that to be successful in business, one must be able to be, for lack of a better term, mean. Or, at least, one must be prepared to act that way. For decades, otherwise mild-mannered and amiable individuals have had to train themselves to behave differently at work: to be harder, colder, less polite. (You can actually take courses on this kind of thing.) In some workplaces, making a colleague cry is considered a sadistic rite of passage. In the culture of commerce, behaviour that would be inexcusable in pretty much any other context is not only tolerated, but rewarded.

To what end? What real benefits are conferred on a business when its leaders are nasty? Abusive behaviour sure doesn’t spur productivity: A 2006 Florida State University study of 700 employees in a variety of different roles found that those with abusive bosses were five times more likely to purposefully slow down or make errors than their peers, and nearly six times more likely to call in sick when they actually felt fine. Nor does it do much for employee morale: As Stanford organizational behaviour professor Robert Sutton wrote in his 2007 bestseller, The No Asshole Rule, brutish managers “infuriate, demean and damage their peers, superiors, underlings and, at times, clients and customers, too.”

The most progressive bosses today—the ones whose behaviour will be tomorrow’s status quo—are demanding without being discouraging, honest without being rude and confident without being cocky. There has been plenty of important research on each of these management qualities, such as Mark Murphy’s book Hundred Percenters on motivating employees to greatness; or ex-Googler Kim Scott’s “radical candour” approach to providing feedback; or the work of Brené Brown, whose landmark 2010 TED talk is called “The Power of Vulnerability.” Caring about people’s feelings doesn’t make managers airy-fairy pushovers; rather, such leaders recognize their job is to help people excel. And they produce exceptional results not in spite of their compassion and kindness, but because of it.

Yes, it can be irritating to hear our younger colleagues complain of hurt feelings. But millennials aren’t wrong to expect a kinder, gentler work environment. The rest of us are wrong for clinging to the useless and outdated notion that to thrive in business, you have to be an asshole.


Get our daily briefing on innovation, leadership, technology & the economy.
Weekdays at 6 AM ET. Learn More »

47 comments on “Millennials aren’t coddled—they just reject abuse as a management tactic

  1. Obviously written by a coddled millennial!

    • Great contribution…. /s

    • “And I have news for you, my fellow judgmental old people: That’s a good thing.”
      Reading comprehension is a good thing too.

      • LOL.. …and I have news for YOU, my child: reality will be very, very different. If you think you are the only generation which had high (naive?) expectations of the world of work, then you have a very steep learning curve ahead of you indeed.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree that, “The most progressive bosses today…are demanding without being discouraging, honest without being rude and confident without being cocky.” I think that this is not only the most peaceful approach, but also the most effective one for all involved. However, I watched the UBC med-school video referenced and I found it a little mortifying on the whole. “Pimping”? Not only is this a curious choice of word for the practice described, but I think that med students should be learning to handle all sorts of questions, and there is value in physicians/mentors (respectfully) keeping them on their toes. Sometimes that means asking challenging questions that may require an educated guess on the part of the student – with constructive feedback expected in return, one would hope. I think it’s all in the delivery of the question and the feedback given to the student. Whether it’s a peer or a superior, questions should not be posed in anger, or in a tone that might belittle or embarrass a student, esp. in front of others. And I don’t have much sympathy for the “pimped” med student who complains that he studied a bit harder in anticipation of receiving challenging questions from his mentors. I think that’s a good thing for medicine in general.

    • Awwww, how sweeeet! Wouldn’t wanna hurt your wittle feewings by giving you honest feedback on how worthless you are you whining, coddled little wuss!

      • Sorry, folks. I apologize for the above. I’m just a little on edge because Trump is so obviously failing as a President, and I’m not good at channeling my anger and fear in appropriate directions.

  3. There is a difference between “abuse” – which is rare, and honest effective demanding management. Pointing out careless mistakes and inaccuracies is not “mean”, but all too often, young workers are acting aggrieved instead and make excuses instead of taking it as a cue to do better. In order for analysis and critical thinking skills to improve and develop, fair consenstructive criticism is essential. And delivering such does not need to be nasty or berating, but poor work shouldn’t need to be called out in a patronizing “compliment sandwich” either.
    Sometimes the work isn’t good enough and they need to do better; sometimes it is clear that they are not capableof consistently producing work that is required to advance. They need to be able to hear this. The truth sometimes will hurt, even if it isn’t delivered “meanly” but straightforwardly.
    And advising not to put medical students “on the spot” for answers is appalling!!! Medical professionals need to make snap judgements multiple times a day! If they can’t handle this demand in a learning environment, what will they respond in an emergency life or death situation!!
    No assholes is a good rule. But just because you don’t like what you’re hearing does not mean the person delivering this is an asshole.

    • Abuse isn’t rare, read the article.

      Most of what you wrote is a collection of common justifications for abusive “leadership”.

    • medical students need to make snap judgments multiple times a day?

      you do realize emergency medicine is not the only medical field out there, right? The world of practicing medicine is not like some goddamn ER TV show where everyone is 5s away from death

    • Good point. I think there needs to be more emphasis on CLEAR, HONEST, and HELPFUL feedback. When criticism is delivered constructively, it can be extremely helpful. As an employee with high-functioning autism, I really appreciate being challenged to improve, but at the same time, I like to know that I’m valued as a human being and NOT just a human doing.

  4. Doing your work correctly and with pride is a good thing too. If millennials (or anyone) can’t do their work and take responsibility, they shouldn’t be working for someone else and expect coddling.

    • Can you even read?

      • Apparently not. Some people just want to spew their worldview regardless of context. Hope it was cathartic, Danielle.

  5. All generations change the work place dynamics, this is not new, even your parents did, without them we would not get a chance to have multiple careers in a Lifetime. Having a job is a priviledge not a right. I’m glad you wrote this, I had a feeling the millenials I work with and supervise really resented being thier and see themselves as victims for having to hold down a job. I’m going to rethink hiring anymore, this is a validating and enlightening insite, oh nauseating too.

    • As someone in charge of hiring people, I’d really hope you’d be better at knowing which there to use, or at the very least have a grasp on editing. It’s also insight, not insite and privilege not priviledge. You shouldn’t be in charge of anyone.

      • Ah, the moronic old “I can’t argue his points, so I will attack his grammar.” It is this type of childish hostility to criticism that makes everyone think you are coddled and too soft to handle the real world. Have a problem with what they said, refute their arguments. That is how discourse works. Of course the generation of the terminally offended can’t handle hearing contrary opinions or ideas so I doubt you have much experience with it. Adults can have an exchange of ideas without resorting to cop out attacks. It is a sign of mental intelligence and maturity that, well, seems very lacking in quite a few millennials. If you aren’t a millennial, quit being a troll. Your response added nothing and you look like more of an idiot than the person you replied to.

        • I agree with the dumb grammar police deflectin. I really have changed my policies after reading this in some fools thirsty newsfeed and following it here. Had to get a few freelancers, going for some with some gray hair. I’m tired of millenials acting like they are revolutionary when they are really whiny gutless turds that resent having to pay bills.

          • Oof, I sure hope your profile here can’t be traced back to your business, seeing as you’re openly admitting to age discrimination, which is illegal…

          • It must be dreary to subsist in a world where diverse groups of people can be reduced to a stereotype. You know nothing of anything. Go experience some life.

      • This is such a great response! Thanks you really proved my point, you are so busy policing my spelling errors you missed my actual point. Great job Gen why?

    • Did you even read the article you boomer clown?

      At least the millennials who resent being “there” probably have the insight to spell correctly.

      • Such a troll you are.

      • Yes all the collective gen why tantrums over my spelling errors are really the point here. Stop around over using asterisks all day at the reality that most of the Gen Xers I know are disgusted by your lack of values. The article is clear evidence. Used an “I” instead of an “e” you’d think you would all celebrate your favorite phrase. Lol.

    • “Having a job is a privilege not a right”. Hmmm, sounds interesting- tell me more about the rich, fulfilling, healthy lives one can lead trying to go without a job in capitalist society! Having been on benefits before, I know exactly how it compares to middle-class life. All that therapy for my mental health, the great food I could afford, such wonderful housing with great people… You must be right, random bitter stranger, that jobs are a privilege! Such a statement could never come from someone raised on Bank of Mum and Dad, and I’m all in favour of cunts like you running our hiring departments- while more ethical, educated, and straight up nicer people like myself are stuck in minimum wage jobs. Millennials are totally the ones ruining the world…

      • If you stopped whining, taking credit for doing the minimum, and had an original thought you might actually have the effective social change you credit each other in the groupthink you call a generation. Keep trying thirsty fools, no one takes you seriously all you do is claim you are revolutionaries. You’re boomer parents were the revolutionaries, you are all just whisttless turds so far. You better contribute before Gen Z overtakes your whiny asses.

        • Lainie is just bitter because Boomers ruined the generations after with their attitudes of me me me and only me, and “millenials” actual have the values they lack, seeing that Lainie is a good example of who not to be when you grow up.

  6. Sorry, but Deborah Aarts is comparing apples to oranges. Millennials being delicate snowflakes is an entirely separate issue from overbearing bosses in the workplace. The two simply don’t equate. It’s like saying “Drugs are addictive and dangerous. Perhaps the rest of us need to reconsider why we use them in hospitals.” The former is not only a sweeping generalization, but the conclusion is an absurdly dishonest attempt of using political rhetoric to paint something beneficial in a negative light. I’m not advocating the mistreatment of employees, but employers still need to have the authority to discipline (or at the very least let go) employees who refuses perform up to the job’s expectations. The alternative is a far lazier workforce that doesn’t do or produce anything of any substance, and that’s bad for America all around. Is it possible that some bosses will abuse this? Almost certainly. However, advocating the far extreme will only result in many employees abusing the system in turn, to accomplish nothing, while being supported and even rewarded for their misdeeds. There’s enough of that in America already.

    • “A lazier workforce that accomplishes nothing”
      You are referring to employers. Those in authority do nothing but demand more work from others. Bosses need to stop squeezing the ones who are earning the money.

      Also, employer authority is an outdated model.

  7. If millennials are coddled, I ask: Who coddled them? Blame the people who raised them that way. It doesn’t happen on its own. Plenty of millennials are finding success *despite* how they were raised, not *because* of it.

  8. Sure, some might be rejecting abuse but often they are just coddled. Recently I, an old fart at 38, have had an ongoing issue with a 20-something repeatedly not doing the work she was assigned opting to do favors for co-workers instead and then asking for OT to get the work she was hired to do done. Over months I’ve explained to her she has to focus on tasks she was assigned by her manager first and if she needed help prioritizing her work she just had to ask, we were happy to teach her. After blowing the most recent deadline and requiring another designer to step in, HR and I sat down with her and explained that this was the last time we could offer her help prioritizing her work and next time we would have to write her up. She then went to our COO to complain that we threatened her and she is just more interested in the other projects and that we should create a new (un-needed) position for her that would let her do the work she’d rather be doing.

    I’ve long been the manager at work trying to support and help young ppl into the workplace and acting as a buffer, but I’ve finally broken to the side that yes, young ppl are hopeless.

    • If the other work needs to be done, she is doing great work. Just because the distant manger can’t understand that other work needs to be done, opting instead to load the worker with distractions, doesn’t mean that work suddenly disappears due to the manager’s wishes.

  9. Sociopaths used to be the kings of business. Not anymore. You have to understand and respond to other people’s needs to be successful in this new world. You can’t act like a drunk step father to your employees if you want them to be productive.

  10. Leader or Boss, that is the question. When I managed an office my branch was the only one with happy workers willing too go they extra mile. I annoyed them greatly by thanking them every day. I did everything that I could to make an office work and when you work for the county that is a bad bad thing. IMO it was not coddling at all…I demanded that the work get done and few mistakes and over time with training that is what I got. I did not Boss people around I worked with them and helped them through any difficulties….but in offices it is not uncommon to find people stuck in the “Peter Principal” advancing until they reach past their ability to do the job and staying right there being inept with no aptitude for that position. I am proof that you do not HAVE to be an asshole to get the work done. It is possible for everyone to work TOGETHER….but sadly even now that is the exception, not the rule…

  11. I don’t quite get the stereotype in the first place, given that current young people are paid less, their jobs are more unstable and precarious, and they generally get jerked around more than young people for the last sixty years at least. They’re hemmed in by more credentialism than there’s ever been, but to get the credentials they have to run up massive student loans; once they have their degrees, more and more of them get asked (while they’re trying to pay off those loans) to get experience by doing UNPAID internships, which may or may not lead to a dashed thing after. Anywhere there’s jobs, they won’t pay for a home; anywhere you can afford a home, there’s no bleedin’ jobs. My generation had it way easier.
    How is that “coddled”? It’s not surprising if they’re not willing to put the firm’s priorities first or generally show any loyalty–they know the firm has no loyalty whatsoever to them in a bone-deep way that previous generations didn’t.

    • It’s the same idea as the old racial idea of making the lowest white men feel above the black man. Humiliate and denigrate millennials, and other workers will fall in line. It’s disgusting.

  12. so yet another article to say you are not coddled, then proceeds to explicitly demand the workplace to coddle you. right.

    • Not abuse =\= coddle. Pay attention.

  13. It’s not only millenials that hate tyrannical bosses. Unfortunately though, this personality type seems to naturally rise to the top. The are power seekers and will do most any thing to get there. They are ‘do-ers’ with a natural tendency to disregard others’ points of view. But, my friend, I do not see why you feel the need to bash boomers as if we have the patent on tyrrany. Yes, we’ve had to put up with this crap for decades longer than you. But I’m sure your generation will have its share of self-absorbed power-seekers that will steamroll over their peers to grab the brass ring. I hear people throwing around the word ‘old’ like an accusation, like an assignment of blame. The good news is that, sooner than you realize, you’ll be there. And the next generation will be pointing their finger at you. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and remember this conversation. It’s too bad there can’t be a respect between the generations. Where the ‘old’ are valued for their experience and knowledge — and the young are kindly mentored and valued for their energy and potential. – Sad emoji.

  14. I appreciate your thoughtful piece, but it does feel disconnected from the reality of business. The notion that feelings take priority in a company can be detrimental to the business. There are things like competitive pressure, customer satisfaction, tight deadlines that do not account for feelings. While no one should be a jerk at work, there are situations where you need to drive a worker or team towards an end goal at all costs.

    • Right. The boss’s feelings of power hunger shouldn’t have any priority.

  15. The fatal flaw in this arguement is that, in trying to disprove the stereotype of millennials being coddled, you use a stereotype of a boss. You can’t use a stereotype to prove why using stereotypes is innaccurate method of evaluation. And the simple fact of the matter is that melennials aren’t being perceived as coddled because they are speaking out against “abusive bosses”. They (or I should say we since this is my generation) are perceived as coddled because we lack a reasonable level of independence, we can’t deal with healthy criticism well, and frankly we have trouble dealing with a normal amount of responsibility.

  16. It’s nice to see a little research-backed compassion directed at millennials.

  17. purposely?!? fvck them. whenever i’m nice – i get ignored. whenever i’m “loud and anger” and rightfully so, i’m ignored while stared at blankly.

  18. I think we have an opportunity in Millennials to change the workplace into a more productive and interactive machine through better communication skills and understanding. Current workplace environments don’t fully utilize resource intelligence to productively plan or solve problems. The old model of talk down and solutions from the top don’t engage expertise in fields that are less than a few years old. The managers and CEO’s no longer grasp the potential of human resources that are trained and engaged in the very newest technologies. To stay on top we are have to remap the work environment. There will be very little (if any) need with the introduction of AI and robotics for untrained personnel being part of the process in the future. The future work force will need to be innovative, unrestrained, good listeners and designed for collaboration. This article should be an eye opener for the old guard to begin the process of stepping down.

  19. I had a string of highly abusive bosses in the first five years of my career. Most of the time I had no trustworthy HR contact (if any at all!) to confide in. Looking back, there were times when I slipped up due to immaturity and inexperience and correction, even firmness, was warrented; however, a lot of the “correction” I did received was ill-conceived not just in style but also in substance. However, I also had to put up with a lot of pure garbage.

    The thing is, in a situation like the above one, you are always formally free to quit, but the alternatives might not be acceptable. Sometimes just living has a price. What I can say is that despite all of the bad (and I would never wish any of those work experiences on anyone), I have at least learned how to say no and negotiate, how to pick my battles and stand down to save time and energy. Above all, I learned how deeply dependent an employee is on his employer and was all the more motivated to break away from the corporate world altogether once I could. Now I run my own consulting company and the lessons of my early career are certainly key to my success.

    So that’s one problem I have with this article: by saying without qualification that we *shouldn’t* have to accept abuse at work, it might give the less experienced the impression that they *will never* have to. No matter how well-brought-up you think you are, there is always a chance you might find yourself playing with someone who doesn’t respect the rules, and that you may have a difficult time backing out of the game. If that happens, you have to make the most of it while you’re stuck there.

    Another problem is the unqualified pitting of fresh open minds against “judgmental old people.” Older people are sometimes more discriminatory and judgmental, sure, but we also become more discriminatING and judiciOUS with age. Speaking as a millennial, I certainly have regrets about certain moments early on in my career when I realized I could be a high performer and decided to get on my high horse a bit too quick. But even if you ARE just that brilliant, at least for the first year or so in a role you should ALWAYS operate from a vantage point of humility, on the premise that you know less than your peers. Even if this isn’t the case it will help you survey the terrain (guess what? People let you get away with more if they *think* you don’t know what’s going on).

    Do abusive workplaces exist? Sure. If you are criticized or called to heel or “put in your place” at work, is that abuse? Not necessarily, and you need to carefully evaluate the situation before you react (and prudence is a cardinal virtue, in any event). If you find yourself stuck in one, is whining appropriate? No, and you’re not doing yourself any favors if you do whine.

  20. As a Millennial who works in my business field while going to a business school, I can not agree with arguments of this article.

    I think a considerable percentage of my generation is weak and soft. I believe this is a result of the cycle, ” Hard times create strong man. Strong man creates good times. Good times create weak man. Weak man create hard times.” Perfect Improvement is only achievable through understanding brutal facts in order to change and do it better in next time. Unfortunately most millennials can not always demonstrate guts to face brutal facts. ” Ahhh the professor is so rude, oh my god my boss is bla bla”. Ehh good morning dear peer millennial, life is beautiful but sometimes it is less beautiful. Deal with it. I am not encouraging abusive managers and it is already proven that they effectively decrease performance of their subordinates thereby the company’s. On the other hand, there is no correlation between number of abusive managers and millennials. Sensitive is still there, and they have no harm but themselves. I think instead of presenting instantaneous defensive stance upon criticism, my peers shall observe and analyze both criticism and themselves before deciding what to do, and even what to feel. Sometimes, feedback will be useless and biassed. Okay, dismiss it and move. On the other side of the coin, there will be those unique moments when feedback hurts like a unsharpened dagger because it is so true. They are possibly the most critical milestones in the individuals’ self and career improvement and such critical phase shall not be wasted by missing the opportunity to fix the problem. Before writing ” I have leadership skills and I am the perfect team leader- #leader” to your resume, become a leader of yourself.