Three Ways Leaders Can Help Millennials Succeed

By: Jan Ferri-Reed

In the next few years another 40 million millennials, the generation born between 1980 and 2000, will flood the workplace and shake things up. Their other brethren from the first wave of this generation, the 40 or so million millennials who were born between 1980 and 1990, are already on the job and raising eyebrows as they encounter older generations.

It’s not surprising that younger workers would be a source of new conflict. These millennials grew up in a radically different world from their baby boomer parents and thus bring a different set of values and expectations to the world of work.

That doesn’t mean millennials can’t become productive, functioning team members. Given the right approach, organizations can integrate members from all generations smoothly into a synergistic, high-performing team.

Many leaders, however, think the millennials lack the type of commitment to the organization that characterized their parents’ generation. In contrast, today’s millennials seem willing to jump ship for the greenest pasture available.

In addition to a lack of commitment, they frequently are perceived as possessing a sense of entitlement out of proportion to their status. After even a short time on the job, many youthful personnel expect promotions before they’re considered ready by older co-workers or management. Many millennials seem to lack the same work ethic that earned so many of their baby boomer parents the mantle of workaholics.

Despite the apparent shortcomings of millennials, they may represent an exciting new opportunity to reenergize the workplace and boost productivity. Over the last few years we have worked with numerous clients to help them manage multiple generations in the workplace effectively. We’ve found that intergenerational conflicts and communication breakdowns aren’t insurmountable. A different approach for orienting and developing novice staff members can help energize teamwork and enhance communication.

Your Secret Weapon

Although these youthful employees may appear supremely confident and self-assured, that doesn’t mean they’re resistant to feedback. In fact, one of the unique characteristics of millennials is their hunger for feedback and input.

These are also the “trophy kids”—children who received awards just for showing up and recognition just for participating. As a result, they are used to positive reinforcement and may tend to resist harsh or negative feedback.

Although millennials eagerly welcome feedback— and even seek it out, they don’t handle negative feedback very well at all times. It’s really a matter of how you shape your feedback to this generation, not a matter of whether they’re willing to accept it.

There are three things leaders can do to assure these millennials will achieve success on the job, despite generational differences:

  • Give them the big picture.
  • Help them find the “me” in team.
  • Mentor them on career-building behaviors.


Give Them the Big Picture

The key to providing the “big picture” to millennials lies in understanding what they need to know, rather than what you want to say. Given their limited experience, these fledgling employees need to comprehend how their efforts fit into the overall goals of the organization. If explained properly, the organization’s mission statement can be a rallying cry for motivating these fresh workers.

They want to contribute to their organization, and they often have a high opinion of their ability to do so. As many managers have learned, youthful employees expect to be heard. When they encounter entrenched procedures and static rules, however, they very quickly become frustrated and lose motivation.

When they understand how the different parts of an organization interact and how each department’s role complements the overall operation, they feel like a contributing part of the entire team. Roles and responsibilities that may have seemed arbitrary or unnecessary take on new meaning when your newest team members grasp how the cogs turn together.

Help Them Find the “Me” in Team

Millennials are not averse to being team players— far from it! Perhaps no other generation has as much experience performing as part of a team—from youth soccer (and other sports) to team projects in the classroom.

Today’s newest labor force members also are used to being part of teams in the form of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other forms of social networking. They may not understand the skill sets necessary to work in a collaborative environment, however. The starting point is to understand the team’s strengths and weaknesses. A strong sense of team members’ skills, attitudes, expectations, and experiences enables leaders to determine how to help younger workers contribute best.

Millennials are well prepared to work in a collaborative environment, so long as leaders give them the terms of engagement. In fact, they could lead the way to the workforce of the future with their skills in technology and willingness to collaborate in a virtual environment.

Mentor Them on Career-Building Behaviors

One area in which beginning workers may be deficient compared with older employees is career management. Unlike their older counterparts, they may be “green” when it comes to social expectations, boundaries, limits, or acceptable behaviors.

Some millennial employees think nothing of ignoring the “chain of command” or speaking with senior managers as though they’re on the same level. Not knowing the organization’s culture or informal rules could leave them prone to committing career “suicide.”

The only way to avoid a faux pas like this is to clue them in as soon as possible. It may be hard to help younger personnel appreciate the value of form over function, but they’ll probably appreciate the focus on their career prospects.

In the long run, millennial staff could become the most creative and productive employees. By helping them settle in now, managers can assure that the contributions, promise, and payoff of the newest generation of workers won’t be lost.

Jan-Ferri-ReedJan Ferri-Reed is a seasoned consultant and president of KEYGroup®, a 30-year international speaking, training, and assessment firm and co-author of Keeping the Millennials: Why Companies are Losing Billions in Turnover to This Generation and What to Do About It. She has presented a variety of programs to a diverse range of organizations across the globe, focusing on creating productive workplaces and retaining talent while increasing the bottom lines. For more information, contact her at this address.

Reprinted with permission from Journal for Quality and Participation ©2012 American Society or Quality.  No further distribution allowed without permission.