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James Bailey Ph.D.
James Bailey Ph.D.

Can Millennials Be Led?

Yes, but you have to invite them.

Andrew Noel/Unsplash
Source: Andrew Noel/Unsplash

Co-authored with Emily Volpe and Lucy A. Gamble

Despite being part of the workforce for more than 10 years, Millennials – who will soon be one third of the American adult population and 75% of the workforce– still get a bad rap from their Gen X and Baby Boomer managers. Many companies have embraced Millennial interests through policies that promote work-life balance, such as flexible work schedules and technology to interact with colleagues remotely. But many managers still disparage entry-level Millennials, tossing the label around as if it were a dirty word to describe disloyal, entitled and fragile slackers.

Millennials are none of these things. They are, instead, the key talent source for the modern workplace. To remain competitive and relevant, companies must attract and retain them. To do so, they must first get a handle on the Millennial mentality. This essay provides some insight into that mentality by addressing three misapprehensions about this important generation and by offering some modest advice for concrete action.

Misapprehension 1: Millennials are disloyal and entitled.

The truth is, Millennials are hard workers who are plenty loyal so long as loyalty is reciprocal. In fact, new research by Pew indicates that Millennials may not actually job-hop more than their Gen X predecessors did at the same age. Managers need to reassess their thinking about what constitutes loyalty, distinguishing between job and company devotion. Managers should be thrilled when entry-level Millennials move on to another job inside the company. Why should they expect someone to stay in an entry-level position more than two or three years? That’s the equivalent of stifling one’s career advancement. What person would be loyal to an organization that stymies their growth? Retention should not mean keeping someone on their team, but keeping someone in their organization. Managers should learn to let go and accept internal turn-over as a reality that can benefit everyone. Millennials are loyal to their organizations so long as their organizations are committed to their job growth.

Furthermore, Millennials are often criticized for asking for promotions “too soon” because they feel “entitled.” The reality is Millennials learn quickly and are relentlessly looking for the next challenge. Why should they not ask about their next opportunity? Millennials grew up in a time of unprecedented speed in technological advancement, which means they have learned to adapt quickly to changing environments and recognize and embrace the attendant challenges.[iv] Besides, most professionals – regardless of generation – are motivated by recognition and growth opportunities. The more opportunities available, the more Millennials see themselves growing with their current employers.

Release their best by: Hiring Millennials who are a great fit for the job and the organization. When interviewing, keep in mind how this new, bright, eager person could benefit the entire company, not just the entry team. Expect this person to be on the team for two years, but invest in them like they will be there for ten. The reward of having a network of experienced professionals throughout the organization who already understand a department’s work, and are ready to advocate throughout the firm, will outweigh the frustration of turnover.

Once they are onboard, develop pathways to make growth and development inside possible and desirable. Keep them engaged by concertedly developing and broadening their skills. And cultivate the next generation of leaders by offering ample opportunities to be entrepreneurial.

Misapprehension 2: Millennials want too much time off and have unreasonable salary expectations.

Millennials crave work-life balance not because they are reluctant to work hard, but because they desire to find ways to integrate their professional and personal lives. In this way, they eschew the separation of identities that has long characterized the workforce. Millennials want to work for companies that share their values, passions, aspirations and drive. They want to actively contribute toward achieving personal and professional and collective goals. They want to be involved in decision-making, and in this way, to contributing to a joint pursuit. They want to own pieces of the deliverable, thus having an obligation to accomplish something tangible. And, they want to see their role’s connection to the bigger picture, so that they understand how their contributions matter. If they feel connected to the company by being broadly exposed to strategy and direction, and acknowledged for their contributions, they will be incentivized to work harder and smarter, putting in long hours and creatively solving problems.

Keep in mind that just as salaries have stagnated, housing prices have skyrocketed in the urban areas that attract newly graduated Millennials. This generation also has the highest student debt ever.[viii] Taken together, this means that entry-level Millennials often have a tough time making ends meet on their “day jobs” alone. Thus, many rely on second jobs, side hustles or the gig economy to pay the rent. It’s a necessary condition of the modern economy; a trade-off between lifestyle and work-style. To have the job they want and the life they want to live where they want to live it, “moon-lighting” is part of the scene. For better or worse, this is the reality of this generation.

Keep them invested by: Designing jobs that have all the discretion possible and through which contribution can be identified and connected to the overall pursuit of the firm. Manage by performance, not time in the office. Millennials will work plenty hard, but they want time to renew and recharge, especially because they may be working another job to make ends meet. Use flexible schedules as much as possible, and, of course, pay a competitive living wage. Allow, nay, encourage, them to engage their passions outside of the workplace. This will enable them to be more productive employees and better able to articulate where they want their careers to go.

Alex Kotiarsky/Unsplash
Source: Alex Kotiarsky/Unsplash

Misapprehension 3: Millennials have delicate, snowflake dispositions that make them easy to offend.

To be sure, Millennials were taught to be more, well, diplomatic when communicating. A great deal of this had to do with the context of their upbringing. Self-esteem movements, coupled with heightened socio-cultural norms around respecting others, translates to a greater awareness of their own, and others, feelings. This, in turn, likely fosters emotional intelligence; an ability highly prized in today's workplace. Moreover, they were encouraged to communicate “up.” To let those above them know their thoughts. Feedback was as much vertical as horizontal.

But Millennials are not fragile flowers who are averse to criticism. They are comfortable with receiving and giving constructive feedback when the environment is open to it and they appreciate the feedback as a sign of investment. Social media is a giant feedback machine and maturing in this environment allows them to receive and share feedback often more easily than team members from older generations. Millennials may be disappointed at their defeats – maybe too much so – but that is because they are hard on themselves. They want to succeed, and if they have the necessary resources, they can thrive in an environment that allows them to learn from failing.

Build trust by: Creating a culture of respectful and constructive feedback that is freely given and received. Openly ask for and reward feedback about yourself. If they can take it, so can you. Informal and thoughtful exchange doesn’t have to take the fun out of workplace banter or the seriousness out of criticism. Good-natured ribbing and sharp rebuke are fine, so long as it is respectful and not intended merely to reinforce power dynamics. Cultivating this environment takes time and real leadership, but everyone will benefit from the trust that comes from honest relationships.

It would be folly and polarizing to treat an entire age demographic, a generation, as if they were all the same. Indeed, there are as many variations in beliefs, attitudes, preferences and proclivities within Baby Boomers and Gen Xers as there are among Millennials. Let’s be clear that we’re dealing with generalities here. But let’s also be clear that we shouldn’t labor under the assumption that Millennials’ require “special treatment”. It’s not necessarily the quirks of a generation for which we should change the workplace, but the workplace is changing as a result of a larger societal and technological revolution. We need to adapt to attract new talent. Treating new talent as a different specimen based on the year they were born is a step backwards, but acknowledging new pressures, competition and influencing forces is mandatory for a company to adapt and survive. Millennials want to engage and work hard, but managers need to put aside antiquated ideas of seniority reigning supreme and let go of old archetypes of the good employee. Only then can the Millennial perspective and approach to loyalty through development, recognition and trust – which can add genuine shareholder value, profit, productivity and welfare – be fully capitalized.

Emily Volpe is an Operations Manager at an international nonprofit in Washington, DC, and a recent MBA graduate from The George Washington University. Lucy A. Gamble is a freelance writer and thinker living in San Francisco.


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About the Author
James Bailey Ph.D.

James R. Bailey, Ph.D., is a Professor of Leadership at the George Washington University School of Business.

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