How to Manage Millennials in the Workplace

Sasanka Atapattu
April 12, 2016

Many of the managers I speak to are very surprised to find that nearly my entire company is currently comprised of millennials, defined as the demographic group that were born between 1980s to 2000s. I often get asked, “How do you work with and manage them? They’re so entitled!” So I’m writing this blog to dispel the idea that millennials are entitled and talk a little bit about the ways I’ve been successful and enjoyed working with this next generation of leaders.

What do people mean when they say millennials are entitled?

Many millennials grew up being told “you can do anything you want with your life,” and that’s not their fault. They’ve largely bought into the American dream of being able to create something from nothing but were also faced with an economy that did not necessarily live up to the hype or provide them with the opportunities they expected. So the entitlement issue boils down to a clash of expectations. To most other people who have been in the working world these high expectations can come across as entitlement, but from my experience, it’s not as big of an issue as it seems.

Millennials have big dreams of success. Does that mean they want everything? Maybe, but that’s not that different from people  who grew up in earlier decades and wanted to create a better life. Everyone wants to be recognized for the things we do and create. That’s called being valued, and millennials crave this more than other motivators like money or prestige.

Three things to understand about millennials:

  1. They don’t understand or fear a hierarchy and are used to being more collaborative. They want to understand what’s going on and how they can help, so the traditional norms when talking to their superiors aren’t always there.
  2. They have to see a path or be a part of creating something vs. an older mindset that’s more concerned with money to support a family or buy a house.
  3. The line between personal and professional is blurred. They take work home and it becomes more of their life. Millennials are really passionate and managers need to learn how to fuel and structure that passion. The challenge lies in the knowledge and experience gap. This is where managers can help them find a path to success.

Millennials are smart, and sometimes too smart.

Growing up in the information age, they’re constantly learning with or without the aid of others. Sometimes they can come across as know-it-alls, and this is a great opportunity for managers to become coaches.

A lot of the young people I speak with are right out of school. They’re ready to hit the ground running, and mistakenly think they have the necessary knowledge and experience. In their minds they already look at themselves as mini CEOs.

Often they say things that lack support. This is just inexperience, so don’t mistake that as cockiness and don’t hold that against them. Millennials are not the “yes man” type, so embrace their eagerness and their questioning. It’s not disrespectful, they just want to be helpful. As a manager and coach, you’ve got to help them understand that you’re open to ideas, but that nothing can replace the experience you’ve accumulated in you career.

They want to see a career path.

Contrary to the idea that millennials have extremely short attention spans, they’re actually good planners and think a lot about their future paths. Their thought process is not just “how can I get through my job today?” but broader: “What’s my career path? How can I be a part of something big, and am I making a difference?”. You’ll see your young employees jump ship fast if they don’t see this path. They have to believe in the mission and vision of a company - and you, as the leader, need to make them believe.

They’re more loyal than you think.

Millennials are loyal in a different way. Money isn’t as big a motivator for them, and they’re not afraid to change jobs. As millennials are now becoming managers, it is less of a red flag to see resumes with different companies on it or different roles. This is because they want to be challenged.

Companies that fail at retaining millennials are failing to challenge them and use their skills sets properly. Don’t be afraid to give them projects that may slightly exceed their experience. Millennials are fast learners and adapters, and these challenges will show them that you want to help them grow.

Connect with them.

Here’s where working with this young generation can be a lot of fun! It’s paramount and critical that you’re able to connect on a personal and professional level. On a personal level, be ready to relive your college days - bring back the stories, relate to them, build that trust. On a professional level, share mistakes that you made early in your career, talk to them about resources you used and things you did to get to where you are today. They will believe in you and buy in.

If you’re a manager that believes in those traditional boundaries you will fail to build a successful team. Think of it this way - millennials are used to seeing all different sides of people because of the exposure of everyone’s lives on social media. Show them a little personality, and they’ll respect your professional achievements even more. If they can see a little bit of themselves in you, they will look at you as a mentor and be eager to listen to you.

Don’t eliminate the structure, but adapt it.

To build a solid team you’re going to want to break down the traditional structures of very formal HR policies, levels of management, and secrecy. Allow your young employees to voice their opinions, and even ask for those opinions and ideas. This will help them feel like they are contributing to your company. Instead of adding layers of management in between leaders and new employees, try to build your team from within. It’s not only a good business practice, but will make your employees more loyal to you and your company.

The biggest takeaways:

  • Every day you should be worried that you're not challenging your millennial employees enough. Think about how you can provide the right type of development for them.
  • Think of yourself as manager/coach. If you embrace the coaching aspect, you’ll not only have the most fun in your career, but you’ll build valuable relationships with the next generation of business leaders.
  • Individual personal moments and experiences are very important. Build trust by sharing more of yourself and allowing them to share with you.

If you follow this advice, you’ll be on your way to developing a fantastic team. Remember, by 2020 75% of the workforce will be made up of millennials.  

Leading & managing millennials does take some adjustment if you haven’t done it before. Especially for managers and leaders that come from a corporate management and hierarchical style. However, rather than complaining about entitlement or getting frustrated that they may not know how to handle a conversation with senior executives, you need to adapt to learn from them and with them, and try to have fun on the way!