3 Reasons You Should Listen to Those Pesky Millennials

by  David Dye  |  Leadership Development
3 Reasons You Should Listen to Those Pesky Millennials

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?

Work Ethic

“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.

Your Turn

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?

Please see the two questions above!
Photo Credit: 123rf/Jozef Polc

About The Author

Articles By david-dye
I work with leaders who want to build teams that care and get more done with fewer headaches.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Mary C. Schaefer  |  19 May 2016  |  Reply

David, what a great post. And what a gift that workshop attendee gave her/herself and everyone in the room. Learning sticks with conversations like that.

Technically I don’t work with Millennials, but observe them working in my local coffee shop and through my niece and nephew. One thing I’m reminded of is that I’m allowed to dream. To your point about an employee being eager for advancement. I can look at myself and ask if I’m doing what is needed (but not over-doing) to achieve my goals.

My now 30 yo nephew asked to be part of a company-sponsored MBA program in his mid-twenties. Typically his employer only allowed those with certain number of years of service. They made an exception for him. He had earned it, and he and his fellow students learned so much from each other. He’s a team leader now. Again, my lesson – don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, and act on your dream.

As a side note, David, check out Brenda Pohlman’s work on Generation Everyone. Fascinating.

David Dye  |  20 May 2016  |  Reply


Thanks for the recommendation and for the learning – I too have learned that ‘dream-audacity’ from millennials in my life :)

Lisa Lavergne  |  19 May 2016  |  Reply

Great thoughts and answers to those questions. I have seen this shift over the last 8 years in my organization and it is difficult to navigate in some ways, but refreshing in others. One question for you – do you have any direction or resources to point me to in regards to practical ways to make that transition from structured hours to a little less structured? Especially in light of new legislation that is coming down requiring anyone making less than $47000 to be paid overtime if they work over 40 hours. This one issue seems to be the one that causes the most conversations as the newer workers tend to want more flexibility than the longer term workers have experienced.

David Dye  |  20 May 2016  |  Reply

Hi Lisa,

So far, in my experience, there isn’t an easy answer to that question because every workplace is different. There are positions where ‘someone in the chair’ is vital and others where that’s not the case at all. My first recommendation is start with the principles: What does success look like like? What behaviors produce that success? Then add in your compliance issues and start looking at solutions that will satisfy all those criteria. Perhaps other readers can help Lisa?

John E. Smith  |  19 May 2016  |  Reply

Hi, David – interesting post:)

My initial reaction: “Oh great, another generational warfare story”. I’m not real sold on the value of defining people by generational cohorts. While generalizations do exist, I find that people are better understood based on their correltation with one or another of the several human developmental theories, each person’s individual behavioral preferences, and their unique values, skills, interests, and goals.

I was pleasantly surprised when you quickly noted that your generation exhibited the same behavior that the person was criticizing in Millennials.

Second and to your questions:

1. Millennials remind me that the “rules” I learned as a Boomer no longer need apply. They work for themselves, even when in an internal position, and are less likely to spend years “paying their dues”

2. My Boomer colleagues have shown me time and again the value of having a strong work ethic … not because it’s how you get ahead, but because at the end of the day, you feel better about yourself if you have worked strong all day. (Notice I did not say you worked “hard”).

3. The Gen X folks are more difficult to relate to, in my experience. Two of my four children are in this generational cohort and I admire both of them for exhibiting the courage to become entrepreneurs, even with kids at home and mortgages to meet.

Thanks for another thought-provoking question.


David Dye  |  20 May 2016  |  Reply

Hi John,

I’m glad I was able to ‘disappoint’ you :) I’m not sold on that value either. Whenever I teach these concepts with audiences I share the example of me…teaching a millennial how to do something on their smart phone…that I learned from a 71 year old friend of mine.

Leaders always learn the individual, not the label.

Let’s hear it for ‘working strong’! (by the way…another trait I have seen exhibited by many millennial folks)

Thanks as always for great contributions!

Susan Mazza  |  20 May 2016  |  Reply

Excellent article David. Anytime we relate to people based on labels and categories we unwittingly color how we listen and react and perpetuate the generational divide. You offer some great perspective on how to bridge that divide.

I think the key to making the shift from hours worked/staying late as an indication of commitment and productivity requires that we learn and implement practices for accountability – from negotiating clear and specific requests, to asking people to be accountable for results not tasks, and holding people accountable in a way that honors them and elevates the integrity of relationships.

What have I learned from my millennial friends? That it is ok to set boundaries and to know what you want and ask for it from those with whom and for whom you work. I think many of us boomers could benefit greatly from following their lead!

David Dye  |  20 May 2016  |  Reply

Susan – what great lessons learned from those friends! I know I’ve benefitted in just the ways you describe.

Totally agree with your suggestions re: shifting indications of productivity. I hope Lisa reads this comment too :)

Take care,


Page Cole  |  25 May 2016  |  Reply

Every now and then you read something that blows your mind… because it’s so simple, you kick yourself for not knowing it earlier, so deep it almost seems like one of those “Matrix Slo-Mo” moments!… This quote did it for me…

“When you reward people for their ability to look like they’re working, you undermine your own credibility.”

Thanks for the wake up call… My millennial son is working with me running my home care agency… I needed this, not just to manage my employee, but to mentor my son. Thank you!

David Dye  |  25 May 2016  |  Reply

You’re welcome – Glad it was helpful Page!

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