Managing Millennials: It’s As Easy as “Everybody is Awesome”

“A youth is to be regarded with respect. How do we know that his future will not be equal to our present?”
― Confucius

I hear a lot of talk from friends and media about how terrible and difficult it is to manage Millennials. Most of the discourse centers around how entitled, lazy and unmotivated they all are.  There are some really funny YouTube videos out there parodying Millennials in the workplace.

The first time I was a supervisor, I managed work study students in the Student Life office at a community college in Colorado Springs. It was challenging to get college students to understand the expectations in a professional work environment.  Dressing appropriately, speaking appropriately, showing up on time, or even showing up at all were all regular topics of conversation with my student employees.

That was back in 2001, and the students I was challenging to make the transition into adulthood were part of a cusp generation between Gen X and Millennials.  All of the same conversations that I now hear people having about Millennials, I had with my fellow supervisors back then.

“Young people are lazy and entitled.”

“These kids will never be able to get real jobs and become productive members of society.”

“We’re doomed.”

I’m a Gen Xer raised by Baby Boomers who instilled the same work ethic in me that their parents (“The Greatest Generation”) instilled into them. I regularly heard from Baby Boomers that my generation was doomed to failure because of MTV and video games. Doesn’t every generation say this about the next? When we talk about how terrible the next generation is, aren’t we just talking about the awkward transition that everyone goes through from childhood to adulthood?

“We are doomed as the flower that is cut from the vine, so is our society doomed because of the foolish whims of these youths.” –Someone in the Olden Days

I believe we turned out okay. Gen Xers are now sharing the workplace with Boomers and Millennials, and I believe, providing a much needed generational bridge.

The thing to know about managing Millennials is that they actually are a little bit different, but in a good way. It’s true. Millennials are technologically savvy, completely connected, and they are the first American generation to fully understand teamwork in the workplace.  I’m sure some would think that I am overstating, but it’s my firm belief that Millennials exhibit true teamwork and collaboration, and the research supports that belief.

In a white paper produced by the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School titled Maximizing Millennials in the Workplace, the authors reference the fact that Boomers and Gen Xers are more individualistic and label them “cowboy generations.” In contrast, they found that “Millennials crave collaboration, team-based work projects and an unstructured flow of information at all levels.” While previous generations focused on organizational hierarchy, job security and strict outcomes, Millennials are flexible, collaborative, optimistic and socially aware.

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© UNC Executive Development 2012*    Click to enlarge

Much of the modern workplace is designed around working in teams, sharing responsibility and putting aside ego for the good of the group. During the Millennial generation’s formative years, teamwork and group-work emerged heavily in schools and the culture at large; social media, crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, citizen journalism, and the list goes on and on. Additionally, the much-maligned “everybody is a winner” sports activities have created a group of adults that many have referred to as “entitled,” but they are actually confident and motivated by participation more than winning.

This motivation makes Millennials wonderful team players.  Awards and personal recognition are appreciated, but they truly shine when working together towards a common goal. Surprisingly, all of that “participation award” and “everyone is a winner” hullabaloo might just have created a good outcome for the modern workplace.

If you manage Millennials, know that you can bring out the best in them by understanding the influences that created them. Provide them with regular feedback, give them the opportunity to collaborate and participate, offer encouragement, and then expect great things.  If you think of yourself as a coach more than a manager, you’ll get awesome results.

As far as the next generation, the “Selfie Generation”, goes…we’re doomed.

*“Brack, Jessica & Kelly, Kip.  UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. (2012). Maximizing Millennials in the Workplace. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: UNC Executive Development.”