How To Handle Criticism In Midlife If Your Boss Is A Millennial
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Handling criticism is hard enough for some people. Add a critic young enough to be your offspring into the mix and, often, all gloves are off. Many Gen Xers are finding that their bosses are millennials these days. It can be hard to stomach after many long, hard years in the workplace. We outline the various ways in handling criticism from a millennial boss.
What are the different types of criticism – and why do they matter?
It’s easy to convince yourself “not to let criticism get to you” because “they don’t know what they’re talking about anyway”. In reality, we can’t grow unless we allow some criticism to reach us.
Not all criticism is created equal. Here are some of the different types of criticism you might encounter, examples of how they might sound in practice, and how it’s best to react:
- Constructive criticism: This involves someone (yes, even a pesky millennial) pointing out something that we did wrong, how to fix it, and ways to avoid making the same mistake in future. This is very much criticism that helps build you – and who could turn that down? It’s like free tutoring. “Your emails have quite a blunt, aggressive tone. Maybe you could use a couple of pleasantries to lighten the mood? I found this guide on how to write conversational language super useful…”
- Destructive criticism: This type deliberately aims to cut people down, bestow self-doubt, and undermine confidence. You’ll usually find narcissists and abusers peddling this type of talk. “You type like a f*cking 4-year-old. It wouldn’t even take a whole roomful of monkeys on typewriters to replace you – just one. Now do your job or get out.” Don’t stand for it.
According to research, people receive criticism best when:
- The critic shows compassion. People should get the impression that whoever is criticizing them is doing so because they care.
- They specify a problem. The critic should hone in on specific aspects of a task the recipient got wrong and recommend ways to improve on these faults (again, constructive).
- They match the criticism to the receiver’s mood and emotions. Targeting someone on the day their cat died is a d*ck move and will foster ill feeling. Read the room.
However, if you like having a wage to pay the mortgage and support your ever-expanding golf club budget, it’s important to find a harmonious way through the day. Not all criticism is a peacock display of status and authority.
But it’s not all constructive either, so there are times when you have to stand your ground. Finding a balance is crucial for workplace relations, relationships, and many other fields.
We need to learn how to dismiss our biases around age if we receive criticism that comes from a genuine place. Remember, it can be as difficult for a millennial to administer criticism as it is for us to receive it. We won’t be the only ones who are painfully aware of that age gap.
Team Vippi looked into workplace ageism, how to spot useful criticism, and when to dismiss it as bullying.
Why do you feel like taking criticism from a millennial would be hard?
Not all criticism is helpful. “You have a stupid name” will not help Elton John improve his songwriting. This is why your manager should not be Mr. Bean.
For a healthier world, there needs to be dialogue that crosses boundaries. There is no one “millennial” – just a whole host of individuals who fall into an age group.
You might have 20 years on your boss, but they may have started at that company before you. They might have a more appropriate range of hands-on skills, like coding or social media management, that support the company’s vision.
Like many CEOs of the 21st century, they may be a young, bright spark with an idea that captures the needs of the time. Gen Xers, quite simply, might not have been young enough or technologically engaged enough to spot it.
And that’s fine. Everyone has different strengths to which they can play. But we can also be hypocrites sometimes, whatever age we may be. You might think that the millennials you’ve encountered are entitled – but you might also think that you’re entitled to a more senior position simply because you’re more advanced in years. Which sounds pretty entitled, don’tcha think?
They also have a general rep for being more sensitive and open-minded than many of their generational predecessors, and for fostering fun, nurturing workplace environments (the Google “beanbag culture” is a thing of legend now, and has been aped at offices across the globe).
So while you may resent being told how to do your job by someone whose mom you could well have slept with at Woodstock, you’ll likely be receiving a more compassionate and constructive brand of criticism than the boss who screamed at you for not flipping burgers as a teen.
If resentment exists due to a perceived experience gap, the duty may be on you to open up a little.
Don’t deal with your boss as a millennial – deal with them as an individual
Can you imagine someone refusing to take dating advice from you just because you’re older?
The joy of the human experience is that we can use the parts of our story where we’ve fallen short of success or encountered pain to enrich the lives of others. Whether that’s for emotional fulfilment, company performance, or sporting success, our ability to teach each other makes us unique – whichever way that advice moves across the age spectrum.
If you are receiving justified criticism based on individual performance, you need to treat your boss as an individual and compete in the workplace like every other person receiving a paycheck from the same source.
Tips for taking criticism from a millennial
So take a breath and listen. For better or worse, the millennials now moving through the world will be our future leaders. Here’s how to put your pride aside when handling criticism from a millennial supervisor:
- Determine the motivation behind the criticism. Are they pulling up examples of what they mean? Are they explaining where you went wrong and having you contribute ideas on how to improve? Or are they just slinging insults at you? Our money’s on the criticism being constructive. Cherish that, because it doesn’t always happen.
- Take control of the interaction, but show active interest in their criticism. Your millennial boss may well have a hard time letting you know what’s wrong. Assume control of the meeting while still respecting their authority. “I understand that I’ve done this the wrong way. Show me how to improve! I’m all ears.” The older adult is still controlling the social dynamic, but the boss is controlling the flow of feedback – everyone’s a winner.
- Ask questions and show curiosity. You’re only as young or old as your mindset. If you show interest in how to expand your skill set and flexibility in adapting to new approaches, a good company and supportive superiors will nurture you. And if you’re not being nurtured for growth, whatever your age, ask yourself whether you should even be working there.
- Speak up when you feel you need to challenge or counter a point, but never be abrasive. Taking ownership of mistakes is a positive way to grow. If you didn’t intend for a mistake to come across a certain way or feel you would’ve benefit from more targeted training, point this out. Aggression or a superiority complex will never be welcome. Managers will hold more against you for refusing to take feedback on board than for making a mistake in the first place.
- Report any actual bullying. If you suspect genuine age-related harassment or bullying from your boss, you need to escalate it up the HR chain. But don’t let a misguided sense of entitlement push you into a negative emotional space. Millennials have had to fight for their position in the workplace, and over your long career, you’ll likely have lorded it over Baby Boomers who asked the same questions of you.
What to do next
If age-related insecurity is bringing you down at work, use it as a platform for growth and dialogue. You may be projecting unhappiness in your role or feel slighted by your company. Always push yourself and ask your employers how they can support your expansion and development.
After the meeting, make sure you get two things down in writing:
- A courteous and grateful email reaching out to your boss thanking them for the meeting, outlining what was discussed, and reiterating both the actions you plan to take to remedy the situation and your timeframe for doing so.
- Make sure you have in writing your plan of action and the metric you’re expected to reach that would quantify success – for example, a specific figure in sales commission or a certain score in quality control tests.
Maybe it’s time to strike out on your own or ask your manager about how to nourish your strengths to counterbalance their criticism and mark out your own progression.
There is no perfect job. Every level has its devils, and you will find a whole bunch of reasons not to like one or all of the senior management staff. Success is a situation that is determined by how you get to enjoy the pleasures from your failures. Can you own your mistakes and grow?
Our reality develops from where our attention lands. Focusing on what other people have that we don’t will put a firm barrier between midlifers and happiness. Concentrating on the next way you can upskill and make yourself an irreplaceable asset, however, is a much more self-actualizing way to spend your emotional energy.
Don’t worry about who the next person is or what they’ve achieved. You won’t be measured against their successes or opportunities for growth, but your own.
People love to throw labels around. But if you found that managers were talking behind their back about having to meet with that stuck-up midlifer, you’d feel terrible about yourself.
Companies aren’t driven by age, creed, or color. It’s profits, happy staff, and ROI that keep businesses afloat.
It shouldn’t need saying, but the onus is not on your boss to be older than you. It’s on you to stay abreast of their expectations and find new ways to add value to your working day.
- Fong, C. J., et al. (2018). When feedback signals failure but offers hope for improvement: A process model of constructive criticism. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1871187117301529
- How to communicate with millennials: 4 rules for delivering constructive feedback. (2019). https://www.fond.co/blog/how-to-communicate-with-millennials/
- Schecherl, L., et al. (2020). https://greatist.com/happiness/how-handle-criticism-pro