6 Tips for Leading Millennials

What you need to know about managing the PlayStation generation.

By Martha Maznevski May 27, 2015
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HR Magazine June 2015We've all heard the stereotypes about Millennials: They are used to being praised. They are not ready for real-world setbacks. They want instant gratification. They lack loyalty. And the list goes on.

While there may be truth to some of these labels, the same things could be said about previous generations. Millennials are digital versions of how 20-somethings have been characterized since the Industrial Revolution.

Yet they do have distinguishing characteristics that leaders should understand in order to harness their power. Here are six insights into Millennials that can help you do that.

1. They learn through experience. They’re not referred to as the PlayStation generation for nothing. They grew up playing a lot of video games that came with little or no instructions. So they learned to make it to the next level by “dying” over and over again. They can be like that in their professional careers, too. They throw themselves into new experiences without a lot of planning, and they learn by failing repeatedly until they succeed.

They expect a leader to play the same role as the walls and cliffs in their video games. Leaders should be aware of this and help point out the potential pitfalls of certain courses of action, both before and after tasks are completed.

2. Their lives are nonlinear. The world has always been complex and volatile for this generation. They witnessed Sept. 11 and the war on terror, came of age in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and never experienced a world in which climate change wasn’t a major concern.

This generation has not experienced the world as a safe and coherent place. They know they will have nonlinear career trajectories that reflect shifting circumstances. A lot of them will go back and forth between traditional employment and entrepreneurship.

For most of their lives, they have been getting their information online and through mobile devices, focusing on one subject one minute and something completely different the next. Previous generations learned in a more linear way, such as by reading books from start to finish.

The good news for leaders is that Millennials are coming to the workforce prepared for complexity. They don't know anything else. Older managers may have a hard time adapting to the new normal.

3. They are loyal—but to principles more than people. Millennials appreciate personal development. They love new opportunities. But they will not follow your lead just because you are the boss.

Instead of trying too hard to get Millennials to be loyal to your leadership or organization, focus on developing and communicating the principles and purpose behind your organization's work. Millennials need to know that they are working to make the world a better place. They believe that there is no success without sustainability for individuals, organizations, society and the environment. If you can convince them in an authentic way that what you are doing is principled, they will get behind you.

4. Their assumptions about privacy, boundaries and roles are fluid. This can be good and bad. On the one hand, we have all heard horror stories of young adults suffering the consequences for what they post on social media, like that friend of a friend who got fired for calling their boss a jerk on Facebook. On the other hand, not submitting to antiquated hierarchical structures allows Millennials to think creatively and find business opportunities where others might not imagine there were any.

While leaders should watch out for unintended consequences, they should also encourage younger employees to think beyond the established way of doing things.

5. They don't put up with bad bosses. For Millennials, power is distributed and control requires permission. They don't listen to authority figures they don't agree with.

This might seem like a challenge, but, in the long run, the sooner people stop accepting poor leadership, the sooner leaders will have to improve—and everyone will benefit.

The lesson here is: Don't be a lazy leader. Make sure your Millennial employees understand why your organization and team are doing what they are doing. Don't tell people they should do things just because you said so.

Also, don't neglect leadership development. Keep investing in your leadership capabilities so you can motivate your Millennial employees.

6. They are not good at boring but necessary work. To develop expertise and wisdom in any industry, people must invest in nonglamorous grunt work. These experiences also help build character and patience. Millennials aren’t so fond of this type of work.

Today's senior managers should put in the extra effort to show these employees why the hard work is important. Make sure entry-level talent know that having a deep understanding of the different aspects of an industry will help them in more-senior roles later.

By and large, organizations have been good at getting Millennials in the door, but they have had a harder time retaining them and helping them transition to higher levels of responsibility. If senior managers follow these six pieces of advice, they can tap into Millennials' strengths and sense of loyalty—and help them to become the next generation of leaders.

Martha Maznevski is a professor of organizational behavior and international management at IMD Business School.

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