How to Provide Productive Criticism to the Participation Trophy Generation

Provide Productive Criticism

Millennials are known as the participation trophy generation. In an effort to teach us that “winning isn’t everything,” we were all celebrated equally. Rather than being rewarded for working hard or winning, we were all given a prize for showing up, even when (if we’re honest with ourselves) we weren’t that good.

While the intention behind this approach to raising Millennials isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it helped create a generation that is sometimes described as entitled and hypersensitive to any sort of criticism. As Simon Sinek points out, when Millennials enter the real world and learn our moms can’t help us get a promotion, we can’t have a reward simply because we want it, and we don’t get anything for coming in last, it has created an entire generation with major self-esteem issues.

As a result, one of the biggest challenges when it comes to leading Millennials is how to provide effective feedback.

This puts managers and leaders in a difficult situation. How do you provide the constructive criticism Millennials need to hear to learn and grow without impacting their self-esteem in a way that negatively influences their work?

How to Provide Productive Criticism to Millennials

While every Millennial is different, here are a few ways to provide feedback to Millennials that I’ve identified from conversations with peers and my own experiences:

1. Be transparent that you don’t have it all figured out.

When providing feedback or criticism, it can be tempting to act like you’ve always known exactly what to do in the situation. One of the best ways to avoid this is to be transparent about the fact that you don’t have everything figured out and you still make mistakes at times. Like the famous quote says, “We’re all just making this up as we go along.” It’s important for Millennials to know they’re not alone when it comes to making mistakes or lacking clarity about what to do.

2. Remind us that “turning pro” takes time.

If there’s one thing Millennials struggle with, it’s patience. We want to be in roles and leadership positions that take years to reach. We quickly get frustrated with ourselves when we make mistakes that impact our performance. Therefore, we constantly need to be reminded that becoming an expert takes time. Many times, it’s only through those mistakes that we learn and grow in a way to position us for our future. Remind us of this truth when providing feedback.

3. Challenge us to think by asking questions rather than simply providing direction.

The best leaders don’t tell people what to do; they teach people how to think. Rather than simply telling us what to do or change, challenge us to find the answer ourselves by asking questions. Encourage us to think through questions like, “How would you make that better? What could you do differently in that situation? How can you prepare ahead of time if this situation ever happens again?” Helping us find the answers for ourselves by asking a question allows the feedback to stick in a way a direct critique wouldn’t.

As a Millennial, I know that managing our generation can be difficult. I also recognize that adopting this approach to providing feedback requires extra work on your part. It forces you to truly care about the people you lead and start forming relationships outside of situations where you’re discussing job performance. But if you embrace these ideas, you’ll become the type of leader that not only influences Millennials’ job performance, but their entire lives.

What are some other important keys I missed when it comes to providing feedback and criticism to Millennials?

Jeremy Chandler

Jeremy Chandler

Jeremy Chandler is a 20-something who loves coming alongside other Millennials to navigate through the topics of leadership, career development, and personal growth. He currently lives in Nashville, TN and jumps at any opportunity to connect over coffee.
Jeremy Chandler
Jeremy Chandler

Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Brooklynite Millennial says:

    Speaking as a Millennial from Brooklyn (born and raised) most of us are perfectly suited to receive criticism/feedback. It should be noted that we’re given the short end of the stick on just about everything because those in the job market are afraid of us. Not because we’ll take their jobs (even though this is what is said out loud) it’s because we’re young and those at the top are old and have to face that fact, that they won’t be needed soon. What we all do need as a collective is to be taught the ropes when entering a job, not just thrown into the pool (though I can handle that – a lot of friends I know can’t).

    • Jeremy Chandler says:

      Definitely true. I think providing proper training on the front end could probably prevent a lot of the “mistakes” that lead to conversations around performance, improvement, etc. It takes intentionality on the leader’s part for sure. Many leaders are too busy worried about their own stuff it’s easy to neglect proper training on the front end.

  • I hate to see people of any age, especially self-identified Millennials, repeating M-word stereotypes. You spent nearly 200 words of a 600-word blog post doing just that. STOP IT! Using the term “participation trophy generation” should be a hate-crime. Don’t tell people managing your generation can be difficult. Managing people of all ages is difficult. Millennials are not special! I’m being hyperbolic to make a point. Your advice is good but you undermined your own credibility by confirming these stereotypes.

    • Jeremy Chandler says:

      Hey Robert! I wasn’t trying to confirm the stereotypes of millennials as much as take a tongue-in-cheek approach to some of the things that are said about our generation. I guess that didn’t really come through in the blog post. I agree that managing people of all ages is difficult, I was just trying to provide some specific ideas that work best for Millennials, based on my own experience. Thanks for the comment. I appreciate the discussion.

  • I think encouraging them to trust their own introspection might be useful. This author did a good job of self-evaluation in his chosen field of grant management:

  • Sam says:

    These are some solid ideas Jeremy. Another safe approach is going over the positive things an employee does, before giving them criticism or negative feedback. This can soften the blow and it will give the individual some key areas they can improve on for the future.

    • Jeremy Chandler says:

      Good point, Sam. I heard a podcast a few years back where an author was debating the effectiveness of the “compliment, criticism, compliment” sandwich method managers often use. She referenced research that stated a more effective approach is to say, “Here’s what I like about what you did… and here’s one way I think we could make it even better.” I’ve tried it a couple of times and it seems to be effective. Using “and”rather than “but” is critical.

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