A Nice Short Description of How to Manage Millennials

They’re not motivated by the classic motivators we expect them to be.

Posted Jun 21, 2016

I always like hearing from readers because they provide practical perspectives that often give me keener insights than I get from management textbooks.

That was how I felt recently when I heard on Twitter from Doug Bacon, who goes by @throwingwords. He threw a few my way and I liked them.

He was responding to an article I did last year on a Harvard Business Review study suggesting that a key element of effective Millennial management involved thoughtful coaching.

“Yes!” Doug wrote me on Twitter. “Provide purpose and promote passion. The ‘why’ matters more than ‘what.’”

Wikimedia Commons
"The Ironworkers' Noontime" by Thomas Pollock Anshutz, 1880
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Provide purpose and promote passion. The “why” matters more than the “what.” Chew those words slowly and digest them carefully.  Nothing fancy about them, but highly nutritious. Simply put, it’s the best concise description I’ve yet heard of how to manage Millennials.

Because, fact is, folks from my generation and Doug’s (full disclosure: think I’m a bit older than Doug!) often have all kinds of trouble managing Millennials, even if we’ve raised a few of our own. It’s like we regard them as aliens who’ve flown in from some pleasant but unfamiliar planet when they don’t respond well to our tried-and-true command-and-control tactics. Or when they’re not motivated by the classic motivators we expect them to be.

Because when as managers we dangle the usual incentives—more status, a more impressive title, a little larger cubicle, a little more money—they’re often inclined to look at us as aliens. Who are these odd people, and why do they think I’d care if my cubicle were two feet wider?

But if management is able to give them a cause to believe in, a reason to care about the work they’re doing, a (legitimate) reason to believe that their role is helping to make a constructive difference in the world… well, then we’re speaking a language less like Sanskrit and closer to their own.

If we’re able to tap into a cause they feel passionately about… well, that’ll probably be a whole lot more energizing than conferring a tad more status in a Dilbert-like workspace.

Likewise, explaining why a task matters, and how it fits into the broader economic cosmos, will probably be a whole lot more meaningful than that old reliable management motivator, “Because I said so.” Or, another one of my managerial favorites (aka, the nine most dangerous words in business), “This is the way we’ve always done it here.”

In short, as long as you provide old approaches to young mindsets you’ll probably end up with frustrating results. But if you shift the focus of the lens a bit and realize that yesterday’s tactics don’t always provide satisfactory solutions for tomorrow’s problems, you’ll be on a smoother managerial path.

So thanks, Doug, for taking time to pass along your thoughts.

They’re actually pretty simple. As most effective management insights are.

This article first appeared at Forbes.com.

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Victor is author of  The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World.