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Dispelling the myth of the difficult millennial

One need only google the term “millennials” or “working with millennials” to see that people all over the world are grappling to understand this group. In fact, those two phrases return hundreds of thousands of search results. So, who are they and what is the challenge they present?

A blended average of different perspectives describes millennials as those born between 1982 and 2000. One key characteristic of this group to which I belong is that it is important for us to assert our individual identity and not be seen as a monolith. I speak as a millennial, as opposed to on our behalf.  I am aware that a number of pre-conceived notions exist in the workplace about millennials that need to be addressed. In this article, I will look at two of the more cynical perspectives, and attempt to reframe them as points of learning for leadership in organisations.

Millennial Myth 1: Millennials are entitled
It is said that millennials have unrealistic expectations of the experience of being in the workplace and that they expect to be in the driving seat from day one, instead of paying their dues and biding their time as others have done.

I would argue that this is a good thing. What I see from my peers is a genuine desire to make an impact, and find purpose in their work. Simon Sinek, an often-referenced speaker on this topic, frames this as millennials requiring work-life integration, rather than the traditional work-life balance where the two are separate. We think about work in terms of whether it matches our values and desire to make a difference, as opposed to how we can mould ourselves to fit an organisation.

Instead of seeing this as a challenge, this presents an exciting opportunity for leaders to think about how each task, no matter how small, has an impact, and how to articulate that impact to young employees. Speaking to my peers has also raised an interesting perspective – that recruitment strategies may be counter-productive in setting expectations. My peers in corporate finance, for example, refer to being sold the ‘dealmaker dream’ when the reality of the work done in the first two years is very different from that.

In light of this, I would encourage leaders to set expectations clearly and not over-sell roles in their quest to win in the so called ‘talent wars’. It’s important to set a transparent trajectory for development, where all employees have access to the same opportunities to advance.

As a young management consultant building spreadsheets all day, what my team-leaders at the time got right was helping me believe that my role helps the client makes sense of all the data they already have, but aren’t empowered to analyse and interpret. By articulating the impact of the work, leaders are challenged to evaluate whether or not each piece of work is meaningful, and in so doing, help keep millennials engaged and energized.

Millennial Myth 2: Millennials always need positive reinforcement
It is said, somewhat cynically, that millennials grew up being told that they are special, and perhaps even received medals just for participation. As a result, there is a perception that we need to be handled with kid-gloves, and constantly need an “atta-girl” – or as South Africans would say “usebenzile”.

Looking at this through a slightly different lens, I would say it shows that millennials value feedback and there’s something for leadership to gain from that. Indeed, we millennials want to know how we are doing, so we can continue performing positive actions and adjusting those that aren’t quite on the mark – and that can help build feedback-hungry organisations.

I believe an organisation that values feedback, especially from core stakeholders, creates short loops for the on-the-go reward of positive efforts and early opportunities for course-correction. This is in contrast to current practice in many organisations, where formal feedback is only conducted once or twice a year. We millennials value growth and development and want to feel that we are being invested in. Knowing where we need to adjust behavior, and receiving training support to that end, makes us want to do better for the organisation.

The attitudes and behavior of millennials in the workplace reflect the emerging value systems for work in our society around impact and agility (pivoting as required, based on feedback). Millennials want to make a meaningful contribution and appreciate regular feedback to measure their progress.
At the end of the day, a growing portion of employees are millennials, including those in junior and mid-level management, and as a result will shape the future of all organisations. My challenge to those in leadership positions is this – what if the millennial perspective could reframe some existing leadership ideas, and perhaps even build new leadership paradigms and ideologies? Where we see millennials as difficult is exactly where there is opportunity to pivot our perspectives, because in fact where you are most challenged as a leader, is where you have the most opportunity to grow.

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One Comment

  1. Obi I Obi I

    Excellent article! I think there is an element of “senioritis” in the perception of millenials by the older generation.
    Their attitudes are progressive and they force us to question how and why we have chosen to architect our lives in this way. The organization that refuses to adapt to the aspirations of millennials will necessarily suffer.

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