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From problem child to the leaders of the future: how to manage Millennials

By Dr Jacquie Drake

Lazy. Entitled. Snowflakes. Just some of the words frequently used to describe a generation labelled the “Millennials”. If we’re to believe the headlines, this overly-sensitive, technology-obsessed collective will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025, spelling certain disaster for business worldwide.

But, hold on a minute, how much truth is there behind this hysteria? Do Millennials really have little to contribute to the workplace? And is it really fair to make sweeping generalisations about an entire generation anyway? How can we ensure we get the best from our workforce, whatever their age? In our recent webinar entitled Managing Millennials, we set out to find out.


Who are “Millennials”?

Millennials are generally considered to be those born between 1981 and 1996, so are now in their mid-20s to late-30s. Far from likely to ever reach 75% of the workforce, population trends suggest this may be their peak year. Globally, they make up around 43% of the workforce; in Europe, only around a third.


Managing Millennials

Aside from looking at their year of birth, how do you know you’re managing a Millennial? For the sake of argument, let’s put aside the thorny issue of whether it’s right or wrong to label an entire generation the same (we’ll come back to that later). What characteristics are generally true of Millennials? My research suggests they:

  • Lack ambition – for themselves, for their job, for their organisation
  • Struggle to take the initiative
  • Lack resilience and self-sufficiency
  • Are often over-qualified for their job
  • Are easily stressed and suffer from anxiety
  • Don’t enjoy their work and have little sense of belonging
  • Prefer to email rather than phone or go to see people they don’t know
  • Feel remote from senior colleagues
  • Need a lot of guidance, support and reassurance.


Sounds like hard work, right? Well, if that’s the bad – what’s the good? Millennials also tend to be:

  • More thoughtful, caring and compassionate about other people
  • More understanding and forgiving when people let them down
  • More willing to forgo personal advantage for the greater good
  • Keen to take on what they see as proper responsibility, rather than focus on bottom-line profits and KPIs.


They also tend to be more concerned with societal issues like mental health, equality and climate change, perhaps because they represent the future they are stepping into – a future for which they are perhaps the rightful decision-makers.

And they want their organisations to walk the walk rather than just talk the talk, to live out their espoused purpose and take meaningful action on putting people and the planet before profit, and to create a better and fairer society. Millennials want to know why their work matters, and how it aligns with their own values and aspirations.


So, what’s the problem?

Don’t these good traits sound really good? So, how do we overcome the negatives? Do Millennials need shaking up? Or could it be that their negative behaviours are symptomatic of disillusionment, a lack of self-confidence or a fear of failure? If we could break down the barriers between generations and genuinely collaborate, might we find that Millennials hold the keys to the future, and could teach the rest of us a thing or two?

The 2019 Deloitte global annual survey on Millennials found 43% wanted to leave their current employer in the next two years, up from 38% in 2017. Of those, 25% had already left an employer in the past two years so this was no idle threat. Among their reasons for wanting to leave, respondents cited: a lack of opportunities to advance; a lack of learning and development; a poor work-life balance; not feeling appreciated; and being bored or insufficiently challenged.

All these reasons point to a failure in leadership: they are not difficult for managers to address.


What can we do?

Things to stop:

  • CALLING THEM MILLENNIALS: It’s a label, it’s a stereotype, and it leads to unconscious bias. One size does not fit all.
  • PATRONISING THEM: Don’t heap praise on them because you think they need reassurance. It’s inauthentic and counterproductive.
  • TRYING TO FIX THEM: They don’t need fixing and who are we to fix them anyway? Work with them and build their leadership qualities.

Things to try:

  • TALK TO THEM: Open up genuine dialogues. Seek them out and really listen to what they have to say. Be curious: ask about their aspirations and pay attention to what matters to them and why. Encourage them to ask questions of their own, to challenge the status quo and suggest new ways of working.
  • BE TRANSPARENT: Include them in meetings and team activities where you discuss issues openly and honestly. Studies have shown that employees who understand what is happening and why are better equipped to help businesses prepare in anticipation of changes and to reward their employer with increased trust, motivation and commitment.
  • HELP THEM TO SUCCEED: Provide training, mentoring and opportunities, and support them in realising their ambitions. Make sure they have visibility of and access to inspiring role models in your senior leaders, and encourage reverse mentoring so they can add value too.

Consider setting up a shadow board as a training ground.

Now is the time to act. Living with a global pandemic and facing the real possibility of a long-lasting recession, we are entering a very different commercial world than we left a few months ago. We know that we need to do things differently in order to face the challenges ahead. Leaders create leaders. So, maybe now is the time to stop thinking of Millennials as our problem child and start shaping them for their destiny: the leaders of the future.


Preparing people

About the Author

Dr Jacquie Drake is a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield School of Management where, until the close of the 2007 academic year, she was Executive Director of The Praxis Centre and also co-founder. She has been a faculty member at Cranfield for 25 years in the field of Organisational Behaviour. She is Programme Director of our Developing Leadership Practice open programme. View full profile.

Tags: leadership, article, changing world of work