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What is the Best Way to Lead Millennial Staff?

What is the Best Way to Lead Millennial Staff?

We hear a lot about the so-called new “millennial” generation and how different they are to lead. However, they are not so “new” any more (the oldest of them being 37 now and often with 15 years or more in the workplace) and some of them are actually in leadership roles themselves. In this brief article we therefore want to consider what we are seeing in the workplace in practice from this group of employees both when leading them and when they are leading others. 

First a few thoughts of what characterizes this generation (accepting that this is a necessarily averaged stereotype of course). Millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, are the children of baby boomers who in the western world and middle classes in particular generally wanted to give their children as much as possible (so that they wanted for nothing). These parents therefore doted on their kids and gave considerable praise and encouragement to build up self-esteem. This generation was the first to have relatively full and easy access to computers and the Internet and thereby have enormous amounts of data and information readily available to them from around the globe (and the ability to communicate electronically at will and as much as they liked). However, such connectivity has occurred at the expense of some face-to-face time and appreciation often gained in play and outdoor social activities in which “boomers” typically engaged. Millennials consequently emerged into the work place in the late 1990’s onwards as highly educated, ambitious to change the world and idealistic.

Although this is by no means a complete picture and is clearly a very generalized view, it does have implications for how millennials broadly see the workplace, want to be led within it and how they see leadership as a task, especially when it is contrasted with the equally stereotypical “boomer” view of the same subjects. Let’s therefore look at each of these three areas one at a time: 

How millennials see the workplace

Contrary to the boomers general view (who often see millennials as entitled to interesting work, lacking in career patience, uninterested in organizational loyalty and oriented to their own goals over those of the organization) millennials actually are more likely to be looking for task variety (with a chance to make a real difference in the world as much as possible), very much looking to stick around in a given company (as long as they align broadly with its core values) and are very much interested in pursuing organizational goals if they can be explained in ways that are more personally appealing to them. Hence the millennial view is that work in general is a necessary and valuable activity but it can and should be “shaped” or “crafted” in a variety of ways with as much democracy in decision-making as possible. This might include working before and after 9 till 5 (sometimes a lot earlier and a lot later!) but sometimes on a smart phone from home (when they can attend to other personal tasks) or even when participating in a semi-social event. In addition, millennials want to work in partnership with their peers and bosses no matter what their generation. This means that they seek much more communication about what is happening and why and need much more involvement in decision making than boomers did when they were at junior levels in the past. 

How millennials want to be led

Millennials prefer to have high levels of connection between their broad life aspirations (and often their deepest values) and the work environment in which they have chosen to participate. They will therefore look for leaders who take a genuine interest in them and their views personally and listen carefully enough so as to “get it”.  Once this “hurdle” has been cleared, the more specifically the task goals can be described the better.  Hence, general or theoretical thoughts may not yield desired results and can lead to confusion whereas tangible goals give millennials something specific to aim for and therefore create better opportunities to succeed. In addition to being clear and specific, millennials like a lot of feedback to know that their efforts are appreciated. This feedback needs to be authentic however and short and informal beats long and formal, at least in general. In this regard annual or even bi-annual performance reviews aren’t enough. Millennials don’t want to be micromanaged, but touching base with them frequently makes them feel both more valued, and gives them the chance to adjust when feedback suggests there is a better way. 

How millennials prefer to lead

Given they prefer a democratic work environment it should be no surprise that millennials like to lead in democratic and collaborative ways or much more “theory Y”, trusting and empowering than “theory x”, command and control, according to Douglas Macgregor’s original theory on leadership styles. This tends to translate into much better open listening skills than either earlier generations (because everyone deserves to be heard) and then taking account of this input in order to set broad direction and recruit as many people as possible to the particular cause. Boomers equate hard work with long hours, and value mastery of tasks, processes or technology (which they typically tackle with multitasking so that they can get more done in less time. Millennials have an entirely different view to this and don’t therefore worry about “input hours” if a person (including themselves) can get the job done, faster or in much less time than originally allocated, this should be valued and even rewarded (perhaps with flexibility to take a longer break for example).

Our simple point in all of the above is that millennials see the world in new and different ways – they are open to adjusting some of their views with care and respect but also feel that they bring a lot of new and improved thinking that should be valued – after all they are on a path to making the whole world a better place in which we all can live.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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