Working with Millennials: 3 Important Considerations

Copyright: racorn / 123RF Stock Photo

Millennials. The very mention of the word can be enough to strike fear into the heart of the most seasoned manager.  Entitled.  Narcissistic. Unwilling to work hard.  Expecting their opinion to be valued above others.  The ‘Me’ generation.

How do you manage someone (or worse still, a team of someone’s) with those characteristics?  And it’s not like you can avoid them – they’re everywhere!  Current estimates put the number of Millennials at about 80 million in the US alone.  They’ll make up 75% of the workforce by 2030. No wonder the Millennial generation is so high on the list when it comes to discussing performance management and motivation in the workplace.  Oh, for the good old days when people were willing to work hard, didn’t put themselves first, and we all pulled together for the greater good of the organization…if you’re heading down this line of thought you’re not far from reminiscing about how you used to walk to school every day, barefoot, through the snow, uphill both ways…and suddenly you’re living the Four Yorkshiremen (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xe1a1wHxTyo&app=desktop) sketch by Monty Python.



Although that little foray down memory lane actually does has some bearing on working with Millennials, let’s stay here in the present and give ourselves some context in order to tackle the issue. And the first question is, where did they come from?

The term ‘millennial’ was first coined by William Strauss and Neil Howe in 1987, and then written about in great detail in their book Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069.  Interestingly around the same time, Ad Age magazine, tried to popularize the term ‘Generation Y’, but eventually conceded ‘Millennial’ sounded way cooler.

Whatever you call it, the idea was to put a name to the generation that would be ‘coming of age’ around the turn of the millennium. We now use it to refer to people born sometime between the early 1980’s, and just after the year 2000, with our main focus being on those individuals who are old enough to be part of today’s work force.  And this grouping, it turns out, is a problem.  They don’t fit with our expected norms, they don’t value the same things we do, and they won’t smarten up and do things the right way. Our way.

But hang on a minute and back up the bus: one generation lamenting the various elements lacking in the next generation?  That’s never happened before.  Well, except for, like, the last 2,000 generations (only 200 or so if you’re a creationist.).  It’s not just standard practice, it appears to be the way of us humans to find fault with the generation that comes after.  And also for that ‘after’ generation to discover that the previous one really is not so cool as they thought when they were six years old.

This problem is with a generation of a different name, but the problem is not new.  Fifty years ago we talked in terms of the ‘generation gap’ (or the modern term of ‘institutional age segregation’ – yeech, clearly no marketing folks involved in coming up with that one) but gradually we’ve moved on to defining broad characteristics for generations, and pigeon holing all of the members of that demographic under that term, as if each individual embodies the characteristics of his or her cohort.  Baby Boomer.  Generation X.  Depression Era. Generation Z.  And, yes, our current challenge: Millennials.

But here’s the problem with broad characterizations and generalizations (also known as stereotyping): it is wrong a lot of the time when it comes to application to individuals. Very few people exhibit all of the characteristics of a given stereotype. We know and recognize that this happens, and go out of our way to reject this way of thinking, most noticeably when the stereotype is based on gender or race or ethnicity; many countries have laws banning this type of stereotyping.  And yet at the same time, we devote significant intellect and discussion to doing exactly the same thing based on the year in which an individual was born.

In order to address what we perceive as the challenge in working with Millennials, we have to take a step back and take a broader look at our world.  If we agree that stereotyping is not a useful management tool when it is based on gender or ethnicity, why would we to use it for groupings of people with the same birth years?

The answer (I believe) is two fold:

  • We’re looking for whatever help we can get to better manage people, and this is an honest and on-going quest to do things better.
  • The thing about stereotypes is that they contain elements of what appears to be ‘truth.’ If we have a friend (let’s call him Barney) and Barney is tall and like to wear pink shirts, and then later we hear someone say that it is very common for tall men like to wear pink shirts, it’s easy to latch on to this ‘truth’ as a way of helping us understand the fashion preferences of tall men. We don’t always step back on contemplate. The reality that this may have no broad application to tall men is lost in the immediate appearance of a tool that appears to be able to help us in the here and now.

We’re not helped by the fact that stereotyping of this nature is considered not just socially acceptable, but is encouraged.  The title of this article leads with a stereotype.  Unfortunately, stereotyping with generations comes with exactly the same problems that it has in any situation.

Wonderful, but what does this have to do with working with Millennials?  Sorting that out requires the recognition of three important principles that apply to working with any individual or group of people:

  • Don’t assume that you know what motivates another person based solely on knowing his or her birthdate. This can be generalized to ‘Don’t assume you know what motivates another human being.’

There are some famous words in the US constitution along the lines of “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” This is a pretty big assumption, and while you could argue about whether what follows those words in the Constitution is indeed self-evident, the ‘self-evident’ approach should not be applied to understanding what individuals find motivating. I know and work with Millennials who work harder than some Generation X’ers I know, or Baby Boomers, and so do you.  I also know Millennials who are less hard working than those same Gen X’ers. In fact, there is a long line of research that debunks the common perceptions of Millennials. It turns out that human beings are a bit like snowflakes—on the surface of it we look pretty similar, but when you look closely, no two are alike. This is certainly the case when it comes to motivation, and making broad assumptions based on stereotyping is likely to end up with incorrect assumptions, which can lead to failure to achieve in the work place.

The problem we run into when trying to understand what drives individuals is one of time: it takes time to develop an understanding of each of the individuals we work with, and the temptation to take the short cut of broad generalizations is significant.  But sticking with a short cut that doesn’t work is a bit like looking for your lost keys where the light is best….instead of where you think you lost them.

  • What motivates you is not necessarily what motivates others. This applies to Millennials, Baby Boomers, or giraffes.  All may find different things reinforcing, and different things unpleasant or punishing.  And these things may be different from what you find reinforcing, motivating, or punishing.

This may be the most significant piece, and certainly in my experience this is an element that can drive a wedge between managers and the people they work with.  We have an unfortunate tendency to assume that the things that drive us (and conversely, the things that we find to be negative or punishing) are the same things that drive everyone.  Because this is how we’re motivated, we deem this to be ‘good’.  Without thinking too much about it, we then structure the work environment to provide our team with the things that we find motivating, rather than taking a step back and accepting that this may not be the case.  This doesn’t mean that we can’t be aligned to achieve a common goal, but it does mean that different people likely need different reinforcers to get them working toward that common goal.  Aligning reinforcers with the common objective is essential, but this does not mean all the reinforcers have to be the same.

It’s a bit like gift giving.  If we’re not careful, it’s easy to fall into the trap of buying someone a present that we would like to receive, rather than what the person we’re buying for would like to get.  If we’re not sure what they’d want, it’s an easy to fall back on this approach, and it’s similar to how managers often work with their teams.  But this is rarely the way to find a present that the receiver will like, and similarly not the best way to approach motiving a team or individual.

  • There are only two ways to find out what motivates another individual: asking and observing.

Well, technically a third way would be to guess, but the gist of what I’m saying is that guessing is not a great approach.

To carry on the analogy above, what prevents us from finding out what another individual might want as a present? Why don’t we just ask the person what they want?  Our social etiquette around gift giving says this is a no no.  We are somehow supposed to have an intimate understanding of the individual such that we can determine exactly what the right gift would be.  In fact, finding that perfect gift is a demonstration of how well we know the individual.  In reality, we often don’t have this knowledge, and a successful gift is rare enough that there are plenty of references to be found in grandma’s family stories and sitcoms about the more normal case: a gift that the receiver smiles politely about, and then takes to the consignment store.  We even have the expression ‘it’s the thought that counts’ to excuse ourselves from our generally poor track record of getting gifts.

While etiquette may prevent us from doing proper research on gifts, there is no Miss-Manners-prescribed law against asking people what motivates them. This is far more likely to provide us with a reliable indicator than guessing.

However, the most reliable way to learn what drives people is to observe how they behave.  There’s a reason why we have that folk-wisdom expression ‘actions speak louder than words.’  An individual might think he or she understands what drives them, but the most reliable way to determine this is by observing how they behave and interact with their environment.  We are often more idealistic about what motivates us than the reality of what does.

So to bring things back around to our discussion of Millennials and how to work with them.  The answer is simple: we should treat them no differently than anyone we work with.  And that means first not making assumptions about their motivations based on their birthday.  Instead, we need to accept that we’re going to have to examine each individual like a snowflake, because we’re all a little different.

Next, we need to accept that (like everyone else), the things that a Millennial finds reinforcing or punishing may not be the same things that we find reinforcing or punishing.  And here’s the kicker with that: we have to resist the idea that this difference is necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’; instead, it’s simply different from us.

Third, we need to leave speculation and guess work to the process of gift buying, and instead actively investigate what our team members find rewarding or punishing.  We do this by asking them directly, and also observing how they respond to their working environment.

Finally, we need to take this knowledge and incorporate it into our performance management process, clearly aligning the individual’s rewards with his or her objectives, and with the objectives of the team.

The process is simple, but it’s not easy, and the biggest barrier I run into with clients is the time it takes to do it right.  My answer to that objection is straightforward: it’s much more expensive to have unproductive team members, high turnover on your team, and a de-motivated workforce than it is to invest in how you manage performance.  Invest the time, reap the rewards.