5 Management Lessons From Millennials

In the past decade and a half since Millennials first entered the job market, there has been a huge amount of scholarship and prose about how to more effectively manage Generation Y workers. Much of the focus has been on the challenges associated with an older generation of managers who are struggling to understand and accommodate the needs and expectations of this younger generation.

For some, more skeptical Baby Boomer and Generation X managers and supervisors, the emergence of Gen Y employees as the fastest-growing and soon-to-be largest segment of the workforce has been a learning experience at best and an annoyance at worst. Millennials, in general, have been widely stereotyped (and mischaracterized) as lazy, entitled, and coddled, while Millennial workers have been branded as ambitious beyond their actual abilities, disloyal, and needy.

Truth is, most members of Gen Y unfairly get a bad rap because of their youthful enthusiasm coupled with their relative inexperience, a refrain that those in previous generations also heard when they first started their careers. Twenty-five years ago, pundits called Gen Xers aimless slackers. Forty years ago, Baby Boomers were deemed disillusioned and disaffected by the establishment. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

It would be foolhardy to dismiss the work habits and career aspirations of an entire generation simply because times have changed and technology has transformed the ways that we work and live. Instead, it might be worthwhile to consider Millennials’ on-the-job expectations and apply some of these insights to the workforce at large.

According to Deloitte Consulting, Millennials will represent 75% of the workforce by 2025, and by then some of them will have advanced to middle- and senior-management roles as Gen Xers and Baby Boomers move on to executive positions and retirement. Despite the excess of media coverage and hand-wringing in corporate hallways that suggest Millennial workers often desire special treatment at work or have significantly different senses of purpose in their careers than Gen Xers or Baby Boomers, studies have shown that the habits and expectations of Gen Y employees really aren’t all that different from previous generations at that age.

There are, however, a handful of unique workplace and personal values that Millennials possess, and many can (and should) be applied throughout an organization to help foster greater creativity, collaboration, and balance. In fact, a study conducted by Bentley University found that 74% of non-Millennials believed that Millennial workers offer different skills and work styles that can add value to the workplace.

Prick Up Your Ears and Listen

In the not-so-distant corporate past, communications between management and staff tended to move in only one direction: top-down. Millennials grew up with the clear expectation that their voices and opinions should be heard. In an era of social media and real-time feedback, messaging can no longer be one-sided. While greater transparency across an organization benefits all, for Millennials, being heard is paramount. By listening with an open mind and in the spirit of genuine collaboration, managers and supervisors uncover hidden ideas and insights that lead to brilliant, better work. Listening inspires engagement, and leaders who consistently demonstrate that they listen prove to Millennial workers and others that all opinions matter, which leads to greater loyalty.

Share and Share Alike

For a generation that’s been saddled with a reputation of over-sharing, there is a growing expectation in the workplace, especially among Millennial workers, that their managers share as well. The historical divide that once separated professional and personal lives seems to have all but disappeared for Gen Y, and they expect their older managers to follow suit. While this can be challenging for Baby Boomers or Gen Xers who have been taught to compartmentalize work and play, extracurricular activities—even those that are seemingly unrelated to professional tasks—are increasingly becoming important and useful differentiators for professionals. Connecting with employees on a personal level humanizes the work experience, and Millennials have embraced the notion that bringing their whole selves to the workplace makes them better workers—and management should, too.

There Is No “I” in Team

While Millennials have been pegged as a generation that’s more inclined toward groupthink and working better in teams (as long as its within its own peer group) than alone, Gen Xers tend to prefer first working alone then regrouping to solve problems. Baby Boomers, like Millennials, prefer teamwork, but ultimately look toward leaders for final solutions. The common thread among generations is the need to navigate through group collaboration, and the future of productive workplaces requires adaptability and flexibility to come to consensus. A study by Ernst & Young found that younger generations are quickly moving into management ranks, and the key to success lies in the ability of companies to evolve toward managing the generational mix by engaging each group’s strengths and understanding their perceived weaknesses. This means paying special attention to the needs of Millennials who will soon represent a majority of the workforce in the next decade.

Tear Down the Walls

Comfort in workplace environments consistently ranks high among the needs for Millennial workers, but it’s not just physical spaces that define their level of comfort. Rigid hierarchical structures that have been the hallmark of past corporations don’t sit well with Millennials who expect all-access across all layers of an organization. Flatter, more agile team arrangements have proven to be more conducive to communications and collaboration, regardless of a worker’s generational affiliation. With the plethora of electronic modes of communications, face-to-face interactions still trumps e-mail or PowerPoint. 

Blurred Lines (Between Work and Life)

If there’s one workplace change that Millennial workers have forced organizations to confront head-on, it’s the reality that work-life balance isn’t simply a nice perk, it’s a necessity. Unlike Baby Boomers, and to a lesser extent Gen Xers, who have largely been defined by their careers, Millennials have made it clear that their jobs do not define them. Millennials are demanding a much more balanced approach to life and work. Outcome-based work models versus hours spent at a desk are increasingly becoming differentiators for companies looking to hire and retain talent, whether it’s Millennials looking to pursue non-work-related interests or family-oriented Gen Xers and Baby Boomers. Providing purpose in work that’s balanced with flexibility and creativity can lead to attracting integrated workers who bring their whole selves—and lead to better work and productivity.

While the expectations that Millennial workers bring to the workplace can seem specific to that generation, many of the ideas are applicable across generational lines. Rather than isolating Millennials and stereotyping their workplace expectations as problematic and unrealistic, harnessing Gen Y’s inherent optimism, team spirit, and do-good attitude may unlock greater innovation. 

By laying a foundation that supports the values, expectations, and work habits of Millennials workers today, companies will gain a head start on effective workforce management and provide the kind of creative openness and flexibility that will be required for the future.

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