Generational Leadership

Understanding and Integrating the Millennials
by Jennifer Cross
Princeton Leadership Services

Organizations can do many things to successfully integrate this generation into our companies.

In the last issue of iBi, we provided an overview of the different generations found in today’s workplace. This edition focuses on millennials: the cohort that is projected to be 75 percent of the workforce by 2025.

Like all generations, this cohort has both positive and negative traits. On the positive side, millennials are, generally speaking, great multitaskers, extremely tech-savvy, tenacious, team-oriented, creative, hard-working and passionate about making a meaningful contribution.

Some of their less-flattering traits are reflected in the nicknames for this generation: the Me Me Me Generation, or the Trophy Generation. It has been the most challenging generation to date to integrate into the workplace for many reasons, including:

  • The technological divide. Technology, to this generation, is akin to oxygen—they can’t live without it. They are a multitasking, rapid-fire/rapid-response group that lacks the patience and focus found in previous generations. They prefer texting and apps to email and websites, which often conflicts with the most common professional communication methods and company platforms. They may chafe at policies that limit the use of social media or personal devices at work. Since they are tethered to their devices most waking hours, positions that ban the use of cellphones are viewed as less attractive. Also, their “tech brains” and short attention spans lead to workplace challenges as they can become easily bored. Both of these variables—tech dependence and short attention spans—were contributing factors to a nationwide shortage of lifeguards this past summer.
  • Attitudes about employment related to education. The recession has walloped the youngest, least-experienced workers the hardest. They have the highest unemployment rate and the highest rate of educational attainment (and consequently, high student loan debt), which leaves them much worse off than their parents were. Younger millennials are being more cautious about college, often electing to attend a two-year college or online learning program after high school. Many are choosing to continue to live at home, or are returning home after college to save money. They see college primarily as a means to a job, not a broader education of the self.
  • A consumer mindset. Things are more disposable to this generation—which includes employment. They believe that if they take a job and don’t like it (or their boss), they’ll just go get a different one. They are comparison shoppers, used to having data at the push of a button and feedback on demand. They typically get what they want, without waiting long for it to happen. They consider most things to be for sale and up for negotiation. This can be seen in the workplace through their “anti-dues paying” mindset.
  • Millennials are generally more health-conscious than older generations, and want a work-life blend that supports good physical, mental and emotional health. This makes sitting in a cubicle under fluorescent lighting for eight to 10 hours per day particularly unattractive.
  • They are very social, with greater breadth of relationships, but less depth. Millennials are more prone to travel in groups as opposed to pairing up, and that’s how they like to work as well. Work needs to be fun and provide connection to others.
  • They are risk-averse. Millennials have been raised in a fear-based culture in which children are seat-belted, bike-helmeted and emotionally bubble-wrapped. They were raised in a 24-hour/day media cycle that tells us to be afraid of everything, and as kids, they weren’t allowed to fail or make mistakes—their parents intervened at every turn.
  • Millennials require constant feedback, yet don’t handle criticism well. They were highly praised by parents who created a culture in which they were constantly told how great they were and received a ribbon or trophy just for showing up.

Given these general insights, there are many things organizations can do to successfully integrate this generation into our companies.

Hiring and Onboarding
Organizational fit is key. You have to be able to articulate who you are and what you stand for, and engage them in the mission of your organization. Work to make them passionate about your company, rather than their role being “just a job.”

Organizations need to teach this generation how to be good employees. Previous generations often started working in their teenage years and came into their professional career with some employment experience. Millennials are less familiar with the bureaucracy and policies that are common in most organizations. Many of today’s new employees have never had so much as a paper route, so companies need to teach new employees about workplace expectations and organizational norms.

Invest in training and mentoring. Many employers don’t invest in new employees because members of this generation are likely to leave their jobs within one to three years of taking them. Companies often think: “Why should I invest in an employee that is going to leave me for a competitor?” Because it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy—if they don’t feel like you care enough to invest in them, they will leave.

Finally, training has to be relevant. This generation loves online learning. If you have to put them in a classroom, be sure to make it as experiential as possible, with lots of group work and activities to illustrate your learning objectives. Give them time to build relationships while they are in training, and provide informal social time occasionally for employees to gather and build morale.

This generation cares less about ascending to the corner office and more about quality of life. They want flexibility of schedule, a variety of duties and a mobile office (when possible).

While salary is important, it’s not the single most important factor for millennials. According to Universum’s research as reported by Forbes, “Seventy-three percent of respondents favored work-life balance over a salary bump, and an even higher 82 percent placed work-life balance ahead of their place in the company hierarchy.” They value perks in their workplace: free meals, recreation areas, outdoor workspaces (to escape the cubicles), and opportunities to informally connect with coworkers (including executives).

Millennials blur the lines between their work and personal lives more than any previous generation. Unlike previous generations, who saved up vacation days and either never used them (Baby Boomers) or took vacation in chunks (Generation Xers), millennials tend to take them as soon as they earn them. They value their personal time as much as their work and want time away from the office to recharge.

Be authentic in your interactions. Millennials want to know you—they want to be friends with the people they work with and for, and connection is important to them.

This is a generation that does not suffer fools easily. The day you say “because we’ve always done it that way” is the day they will start looking for someplace else to work. They will respect authority once you demonstrate that you are competent, but your title means nothing to them—it is your knowledge and skills that will engage them, and they want opportunities to contribute.

Promote workplace pairings that can benefit both individuals and the organization. Millennial/boomer mentor pairings can work well in the workplace. Boomers can often teach millennials how to be hard workers, accept responsibility and communicate appropriately in a work environment, while millennials can bring fresh energy, new perspectives and assistance and support with technology.

One Size Does Not Fit All
When examining generations in the workplace, there are no one-size-fits-all-solutions. Generalizations are broad characterizations to provide context, not definitions, so don’t automatically assume that baby boomers are technologically illiterate or millennials are lazy. Assumptions based solely on age can lead to misunderstandings and some very inaccurate conclusions. The best thing you can do to exhibit generational leadership is to take the time to get to know your employees as people, invest in their success, and promote a healthy organizational culture and work-life balance for all employees. iBi

Jennifer Cross is the owner of Princeton Leadership Services, a consulting firm that specializes in custom-designed leadership development programs, organizational consulting and executive coaching.