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Managing millennials

  • Neal Glatt, CSP, ASM
- Posted: July 18, 2018
Ah, millennials. The generational name carries negative connotations. Many immediately think of selfish, entitled, ineffective, disinterested and unteachable employees. The reputation has become so bad that many young people are doing whatever possible to distance themselves from the name.

I’m not going to defend my generation’s appetite for avocado toast, addiction to social media or obsession with smartphones. However, millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, make up the largest percentage of the U.S. workforce as of 2016. Until they are understood, companies will suffer greatly from the turnover and frustration of attempting to manage this generation by traditional methods.

Here is a short field guide to successfully leading millennials. Contrary to popular belief, you will not require a closet full of trophies or need to let them work from home. What you will need to do is embrace the fact that management is different now and changes will be required. Your company’s success will depend on it.

Understanding the shift
What is causing this shift in generational attitudes? Several factors are at play. First, the economy is very strong. Unemployment is extremely low, jobs continue to be created and there are more people exiting the workforce than entering it. Unlike those whose parents lived through the Great Depression and World War II, millennials don’t believe in being grateful for job opportunities. There are just too many employment options for millennials to be loyal to a company simply for employing them.

This freedom to be choosy about a job means that millennials seek more out of a job than a paycheck. Remembering Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, once the basic physiological needs have been met, people will seek security and safety followed by a sense of belonging, then prestige and finally self-actualization. 

Because there are so many options for employment, millennials accurately assume that they can meet their basic needs anywhere. Plus, millennials don’t typically have young families to support like previous generations, further tipping the scales toward lack of attachment to a paycheck.

If money isn’t a driver, what is?
In place of pay, millennials are seeking a purpose. They want to make a difference and feel fulfilled. Millennials want to be engaged at work, confident that they are using their strengths to affect change. Instead of work-life balance, millennials thrive on work-life alignment. 

When an employer can capitalize on these motivations and foster engagement, profitability and sales can dramatically increase as turnover and safety incidents dramatically decrease. Let’s examine step by step.

Purpose. Millennials don’t care about what your company does. However exciting, necessary and challenging it can be to manage snow and ice, it is not enough of a draw to create long-term engagement. The good news is that what you do is not the same thing as why you do it. The mission and vision of a company and its reason for existence can transcend the day-to-day operations and provide a vision of the “why” things are done. Millennials need this understanding more than any previous generation.

Does your company exist to improve the community? Is it about improving the lives of employees? Is the purpose to provide safety and security to the public during inclement weather? Is the focus on radically changing the industry as a whole to be more efficient and successful?

The better a millennial understands how their day-to-day activities impact the overarching purpose of the company, the better they will perform and the more likely they are to stay with you, to positively contribute and to work harder than required. It is the leader’s job to help employees connect the dots to reap these benefits.

Professional development. Millennials want to improve and be challenged. More than fancy perks, millennials desire to grow in their position and skills. They want rapid advancement opportunities (although titles and skills mean more than increased pay). Millennials value a coaching relationship more than performance reviews and require frequent real-time feedback. 

This generation knows that they are bringing skills to the table. Nothing is more upsetting to them than a ding on their reputation. Great leaders have found success in consistently holding weekly one-on-one meetings with employees to help them develop their strengths and use them daily to advance the company’s mission. It is the leader’s responsibility to make the employee feel cared for as an employee and a person.

If weekly meetings are the answer, annual performance reviews are the problem. It is absurd to believe that one conversation a year can effectively change any employee’s daily behavior. Employees should already know where they stand in terms of goals, performance and watch points. If the purpose for these reviews is documentation, document regularly. If the purpose is bonuses, have an annual bonus discussion. But if the purpose is employee performance, cancel the review and shift to coaching.

High-performance coaching should occur with regularity, at least twice per month. It should be focused on the employee’s strengths and how they can be refined to improve performance. It must be employee focused and done with positive intent. Coaching can be outsourced if time or expertise doesn’t permit. What is important is that millennials feel valued and invested in as individuals.

The end goal
If this all sounds difficult and time-consuming, then you are correct. For decades, bad managers have been able to perform because of generational expectations and a poorer economy. But those days are gone, and leaders must emerge to keep businesses alive. 
Quite simply, you can’t afford not to take this seriously. Without people, there is no company; and without a shift in leadership, there will be no people. Millennials may have a reputation, but they also hold the power when deciding who to work for. Are you going to become a leader that millennials will follow? 
Motivating factors
  • Having a purpose and being able to make a difference matters
  • Millennials seek continuous improvement opportunities
  • Strong economy opens opportunities, allows millennials to be choosy
Neal Glatt, CSP, ASM is a John Maxwell team certified coach, speaker and trainer specializing in leadership development and improving team dynamics. Contact him at
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