She stood up, took the microphone that was offered her, looked over the audience surrounding her, then turned to me and said, “Those pesky millennials.”
She paused, waiting for applause that never came, the continued: “What is up with them?”
It was my turn to pause, waiting for the rest of the question. Finally, I asked, “Can you be more specific?”
I had just finished a program about Winning Well leadership. The woman identified herself as Darla, a senior vice president for a national human service company. Then she groaned. “Well, for one thing, they want their work to be important. What’s up with that?”
“It’s true,” I replied, “millennials often seek out work that is meaningful and will sometimes take less money for work that has a real sense of purpose to it.”
“Yeah, but…” she grasped for words. “That’s unrealistic. It’s work – it can’t all mean something.”
“Why not?” I asked. “Let me take it a step farther…why would you want one of your employees to do work that doesn’t matter?”
The truth is, everyone performs better when what they do is connected to a meaningful and compelling reason why it should be done. Millennials tend to be more vocal about it, but everyone benefits from a sense of purpose.
“Hmm, that’s a good point…but what about wanting to be in charge after they’ve been there three weeks?” she asked.
“I hear that complaint frequently. Personally, I’d rather have someone who is eager for responsibility and wants to improve than someone with no aspirations.”
In my experience this youthful urgency is not unique to this young generation. I saw it in mine as well. Young people tend to have a condensed time horizon. It’s part of being young. Their social media also tells them everyone else is succeeding, but not them.
There is also value in their desire. When your millennial employee asks you what they have to do to earn a leadership position, be ready with a good answer. (Hint: “Be here ten years” is not a good answer.) Tenure alone does not equal competence. You’ve certainly known employees who have been around forever, but lack influence and excellence.
Connect the time they need to put in with the abilities and skills they need to master. Coach them on how to have influence with their coworkers. Telling someone, “I’ll let you know when you’re ready” is incredibly discouraging and demotivating. You’ve basically told them, “You have no control over your own success.”
If you have someone who wants to lead, show them what that means and help them acquire the skills to do it. Why wouldn’t you want another leader on the team who helps you achieve results and build relationships?
“I know I’m hogging the microphone, but just one more…”
I nodded and she continued: “What about their work ethic? Everyone disappears at five o’clock. Don’t they know the benefit of hard work?”
“And what are the benefits of staying late and working hard?” I asked.
“Well, that’s how you get ahead,” she said.
“Ahead how?” I asked.
“How about a promotion or a raise?”
“Okay,” I said, “let’s say that’s true. Staying at your desk longer results in a promotion or a raise?”
She nodded and a few audience members murmured their agreement.
I paused for a moment, “That’s irrational.”
Sitting at your desk doesn’t relate directly to productivity. In many cases it actually means you’re less productive.
When you reward people for their ability to look like they’re working, you undermine your own credibility.
Rather than look at the time they sit at a desk, examine your employees’ productivity. What do they achieve? What results do they accomplish? How do they bring people together to achieve results? What value do they add to the organization?
If “showing up” and “staying put” are your measurements of success, you’re missing what’s truly important – and you’re asking people to sacrifice meaningful experiences and time with friends and family (both of which are essential and valuable) beyond what they’re paid for…to do something that is irrational and meaningless.
Are there times everyone needs to band together and put in that extra effort to get things done? Of course.
Think carefully about the “why” – why are you asking people to make an extra effort? Why should they stay late? Why shouldn’t they travel and invest in their relational health? (And why aren’t you?) If there are meaningful and compelling reasons why, be sure to connect them to your request.
People are different – but we’re all people. We all need encouragement, a sense of purpose, growth, and some control over our future. Your millennial team members can help reinvigorate your team, your culture, and ultimately, your success when you listen. Once you’ve listened, you can also help them learn to navigate the world the way it is, not just the way they may perceive it online or in their childhood.
Leave a comment and share: What is one meaningful lesson you’ve picked up from your younger team members?
And for millennial readers: What is one meaningful lesson you’ve picked up from your Generation X or Boomer colleagues?