7 leadership superpowers to inspire, retain & engage Millennial employees

Millennials, now in their 20s and 30s, have recently surpassed Generation X to make up the largest part of the workforce in both Australia and the USA

(Pew Research, McCrindle)

Whether you are a Baby Boomer, Gen X, or a Millennial leader faced with managing your peers, you need to understand how to relate to this generation. For people to work together effectively, they must all speak the same “workplace languages”, as Shara Senderoff, a Millennial innovator providing career services for other Millennials, said on Forbes.

What is wrong with Millennials and what can we do about it?

Unfortunately, many Gen X’s and Baby Boomers in the workplace experience frustrations with their Millennial colleagues and direct reports. They commonly perceive millennials as spoiled and self-absorbed, with a sense of entitlement.

Whether or not there is a fundamental problem with Millennials itself, the greater issue in many workplaces today is when people from different generations simply do not understand each other. In a study of generational influences, attitudes and values, Christina DeLucia, a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania, found that:

  • 37% of Baby Boomers surveyed believed that younger generations were “less committed and/or more focused on a work/life balance”
  • 34% of Baby Boomers believed that younger generations were “me-centric”

DeLucia concluded that “managers need to be educated about actual generational differences” to help their teams “foster nonjudgmental attitudes, exercise tolerance, and an open exchange of communication and information.”

Choosing to manage your Millennial employees better does not have to involve advocating stereotypes or choosing sides. It’s about finding practical solutions to help you get along with your Millennial workers and bring out the best in them.

Here are six leadership strategies that can become like superpowers when applied in the right way, at the right time.

1. Support – show empathy and look for the positives.

Understanding where people are coming from is essential to communication and leadership. If your Millennial employees aren’t performing, are difficult to work with, or you simply do not like them, have you asked yourself why?

You don’t need to make exceptions for unprofessional behaviours or sub-par performance. However, wouldn’t it be better if you could positively influence and develop their potential, rather than tolerating or turning over more Millennial employees that all have the same “flaws”? Before we even start talking about effective performance management and mentoring programs, to develop this kind of influence with Millennials, you’ll need to start with empathy.

Millennials value a supportive environment that encourages new ideas and creativity and gives constructive, regular feedback. One study reported that while 50% of baby boomers ranked independence and autonomy as a key work priority, only 38% of Millennials did. Why?

Many experts, including Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., believe Millennials tendency to demand high levels of support stems from their Baby Boomer parents “coddling” them as children. Millennials aren’t used to being left to their own devices so, at least while they are learning, they want to “do it together” and be reassured they are getting it right.

You could look at Millennials high expectations for support and complain that they want to be coddled. However, this is an opportunity to work with people who are keen to collaborate and find better ways of doing things. After all, when people work together, we can achieve more.

You are a leader, and it is your responsibility and privilege to facilitate change by understanding where your Millennial employees are coming from and showing them the way forward.

2. Vision – it’s ok to show them the future you want, but listen to their dreams too.

Millennials are optimistic towards leadership, but they are looking for a particular kind of leadership and will keep moving between jobs until they find it. They want inspirational leaders who work with them directly and show genuine interest in their development both personally and professionally.

Regardless of age or generational influences, building trust in your team requires both credibility and transparency. However, Millennials takes this a step further by “demand[ing] transparency” as Josh Tickell, Film Director and “millennial strategist” put it.

Your Millennial staff want to know where you are coming from, your vision for the future, and how their performance can play a part. Sharing this information will help them feel they are a part of something bigger than themselves (which, believe it or not, is what many “me-centric” Millennials want).

Just remember: you also need to listen to their dreams and goals, so they don’t get left feeling too small either. You don’t have to feed anyone’s sense of entitlement or delusions of grandeur. However, by aligning organisational goals with personal development plans, you can develop Millennials into the employees you want them to be today and prepare them to become the leaders you will need them to be tomorrow.

3. Progress – manage the eager expectations but value the enthusiasm.

Things move quickly for Millennials, and they expect fast and continuous progress in themselves, others, and technology. A recent article in the International Journal of Business and Management reinforced the notion that Millennials are “reliant on feedback at work, a need for immediate results and a desire for personal satisfaction from work” (Robert A. Lewis).

However, by expecting regular feedback and a collaborative, fast-moving, high-performing environment, Millennials aren’t always just demanding the impossible – they want to get things right.

Millennials may come across as self-centred, but many enjoy being part of a team and it is important that you show them how to become a contributing and valuable participant. They welcome ‘soft skills’ that will help them be more effective people and employees. They don’t expect to always be right but appreciate regular, constructive feedback from which they can learn and develop.

As well as skills and knowledge, Millennials want access to the latest technology that will help them do their jobs. They want the latest and greatest. However, along with the so-called “laziness” that results from a reliance on and demand for technology comes a desire and commitment to work smarter, not harder, that could be invaluable to your business.

4. Balance – be flexible when you must, but remember you are the leader and set the direction.

“Rules that were set up and even seen as safeguards at one time may be seen as hindrances to efficient workflow processes by another generation.” (Norma M. Riccucci, 2011)

While Gen X’s typically value work-life balance, Millennials take this a step further by seeing work as an extension of their social lives. They’ve been raised to believe you should do what you love and love what you do. And what they love is flexibility, spontaneity, and opportunities to learn and use technology seamlessly between their work and personal lives.

Many Millennials will change not just their job, but the overall direction of their career, several times. They are flexible in that they expect change and learning to be part of their daily lives, but they expect the things they learn should be useful to them in the future.

It may seem paradoxical, but Millennials are known for being highly focused on both achievement and socialisation. They want to succeed but expect work to be flexible in that it is managed on outcomes, not hours.

Millennials are challenging the logic of nine to five. As a leader, this may challenge you because you want to flexible, but when you’re running a business, there are obvious limitations. So, remember what motivates them. When asked for unrealistic flexitime, balance your “no” by showing them the potential impacts that a “yes” could have for their career and development.

Other generations have seen work as an all-encompassing priority around which social life was dependent. Millennials understand that work is important but believe it should not dominate your time.

5. Coaching and mentoring – find a way to help them learn and grow in a way that works for everyone.

These days, every manager or leader needs to learn to share their experience and insights through coaching and mentoring. Josh Tickell reported on Huffington Post that 67% more Millennials than Baby Boomers believe mentoring is important. The concern is the Baby Boomers who don’t see mentoring as important are the ones best placed to provide the mentoring Millennials are craving.

Millennials recognise that older, experienced people make the best mentors but only want to be mentored by those who like and respect younger people. If you are using coaching or mentoring programs to develop Millennial staff and they are not delivering results, check whether “coaching” and “mentoring” mean the same to you as they do to Millennials.

For example, the more self-reliant, pragmatic Gen Xs value coaching, but from a perspective of wanting to learn skills more so than to “be inspired” like Millennials. The kind of coaching Millennials are looking for is a more nurturing, supportive relationship that sets them on a path of self-discovery.

Baby Boomers motivated by security and loyalty might not understand why Millennials want to up and leave their job every two years. By building a coaching or mentoring relationship and developing trust over time, they have an opportunity to develop influence and show Millennials the benefits of sticking with projects and commitments. It won’t work every time, but it will have an overall impact on unnecessary staff turnover, especially amongst your emerging leaders.

6. Humility – are you willing to listen and change, too?

Organisations spend billions of dollars each year developing their staff, restructuring programs and processes, and investing in new technologies to name just a few. Are you spending those dollars the right way to get the best out of your people, or just changing for the sake of change and doing what you’ve always done in a different way?

Robert A. Lewis said in the International Journal of Business and Management “that Millennials seeks high levels of communication and perceive lower hierarchical barriers.” If the majority of people in your workforce today are from a different generation than ten years ago, your organisation must adapt to get the best out of them.

Are you willing to accept that maybe you need to make some changes too? Are you open to modifying your organisational structure, evaluating new technologies that your Millennial staff keep telling you are “like, awesome”, reviewing employment conditions and benefits, or simply adjusting your leadership style so Millennials can understand you better?

7. Connections – get to know them as people, not as Millennials.

Understanding your Millennial employees’ generational influences will play a part in helping you understand them, but remember they are people too. They are individuals with behavioural and communication preferences that have nothing to do with their age or generation.

Christinia DeLucia recommends that leaders regularly use tools such as surveys to get feedback from their employees and “tailor their practices to the existing demographics of their staff”. Again, this isn’t about giving in to unreasonable demands.

Instead of profiling generations, you will get more out of a tool such as DISC® Profile for Leaders, which treats people as individuals and doesn’t label them as “good” or “bad”. Incorporating a tool like DISC® into a team building workshop can strengthen bonds between generations while showing how people of any age can adapt their communication and behavioural styles to work together despite their differences.

A tool such as MySkills Leadership Potential Indicator can also help you identify which development areas your Millennial managers need the most support in while inspiring emerging leaders by showing them their strengths and potential.

Be aware of generational trends, but remember people are people – your differences with Millennial employees may indeed have nothing to do with the year they were born. Coach your Millennial workers to be the employees you want them to be, but also be flexible in your leadership style. Listen to the type of leadership Millennials want and develop your skills to provide it where reasonable and beneficial for all involved.

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As a supervisor, team leader, or manager, it can be difficult to perfect the art of achieving outcomes through other people, in a way that engages and motivates. Supervision requires balancing different views and adapting your management style to suit the situation. Supervision and People Management 2 day training course will help you get the balance right and gain the respect of your team members through understanding yours and others’ preferred styles of communication, understanding performance management and how to give effective feedback, being comfortable and effective with task delegation.