9. Managing Millennials

“Love is the killer app. Those of us who use love as a point of differentiation in business will separate ourselves from our competitors just as world-class distance runners separate themselves from the rest of the pack trailing behind them.”

—Tim Sanders, Love Is the Killer App

In this chapter, we address how you can help Millennials get what they want out of work and overcome challenges they face. There is no doubt you will still identify with many of the frustrations Millennials report experiencing at work—and that should give you additional insight and be incredibly helpful on many levels, particularly when it comes to empathy, understanding, and giving helpful advice.

Some Advice About Giving Advice

One note of caution about giving advice: Be sure to begin with the experience of your employee and not your own. Ask first about her experience. That is also a good idea when managing people older than you, but you will see in the following list of challenges that lack of experience is the number-one roadblock Millennials report facing. They are often in a position of having less experience than others. Experience is repeatedly offered as the reason they don’t get hired, promoted, listened to, or respected. When something is thrown at you over and over, a natural reaction is to be dismissive of it. As one young worker said, “Experience is overrated!” You don’t have to agree with the statement, but you can certainly understand the frustration behind it.

It could be argued that in 2008, Millennials put President Obama into the Whitehouse because they related to his inexperience. His two major competitors ran on the platform of having decades of experience. Not possessing nearly as much experience as his political foes (Clinton and McCain), Obama ran on a platform of having good judgment. The message resonated with Millennials. If your employees do not have a whole lot of experience, try engaging them with what they think.

Work Is Culture Shock

It became very clear to us early in our work that Millennials experience culture shock when they transition from college life to work. While in school, they eagerly anticipate making the transition into a career, but when they finally get there, it is not entirely what they expected. As an example, our research participants talked about the pressure and responsibility of transitioning to professional life from a college lifestyle they were familiar with and enjoyed. One interviewee lamented, “It has been a challenge to adjust from a laissez-faire work structure in college to the highly regimented culture of a large corporation.”

Based on challenges Millennials report facing, it is obvious that work isn’t all they thought it would be. The greatest and yet most basic expectation Millennials have is for the authority figures in their lives to be supporting, affirming, and committed to their success. For many, work is the first environment they encounter in which they do not feel supported or affirmed or that someone cares about their success. While other generations may have also experienced a form of culture shock upon entering the workforce, we argue that it is more acute with Millennials because they have grown up in a world committed to their success.

Your perspective can make all the difference in the world with respect to how effectively Millennials make the transition. One manager (not a Millennial) we interviewed emphatically told us, “They are here to make me look good, not the other way around.” You can share such a perspective, but you will have to accept the consequences—absenteeism, low commitment, and high turnover. It is well documented that people quit managers, not companies. We are not suggesting that you subjugate the success of the company, roll out the red carpet, and become a personal butler. Millennials are natural collaborators and problem-solvers because they are always searching for a third way to look at things. It does not have to be “You are here to make me look good” or “I am here to make you look good.” You really can have it a third way. The reality is, there is nothing wrong with investing in the success of your Millennials or making them look good. In the end, it will make you look great.

Managers Who Get It and Managers Who Don’t

Let’s begin with our early efforts at trying to understand generational tension in the workplace. If you recall, our intrigue about Millennials was inspired in the classroom. As is the case with all engaging research projects, curiosity is the precursor to inquiry. We wanted to move beyond our experience to see how managers were experiencing Millennials in the workplace.

The research design called upon human resource directors to identify six people in their respective companies for the study. Each company was requested to provide three managers effective at managing Millennials and three considered to be challenged. We conducted one-on-one interviews followed by a focus group with all six participants. We did the focus groups because we wanted to observe the dynamic between the effective and challenged managers. We were especially curious to see if the effective and challenged managers would contradict one another in a semi-public setting.

There was virtually no disagreement among the managers. Both groups perceived Millennials as entitled and abrasive. However, that is where the similarity ended. Table 9.1 presents a list of key differences the study found between the two groups of managers.


Table 9.1 Effective Managers Versus Challenged Managers1

Upon displaying the comparison of the effective versus challenged managers, we are often asked the question “Isn’t that just good management?” Our answer is “Yes. However, it happens to be exponentially important when managing Millennials.” It is particularly critical when it comes to your perspective on success. Millennials need to know that you care about their development, have a plan, and are willing to sponsor them. It is a bottom-line expectation.

Next we will share how managers perceive Millennials in the workplace. These are the perceptions that both challenged and effective managers agreed on in our focus groups.

Manager Perceptions of Millennials

It has been said that perception (the way you think about or understand someone or something) is not necessarily reality—but perception can create reality. We vetted manager perceptions with Millennials because we were concerned that the terms would be considered too pejorative. To our surprise and relief, the Millennial focus groups recommended that we keep the terms.

Table 9.2 compares manager perceptions of Millennials with Millennials’ intrinsic values. As you can see, the values are very positive; however, they are often manifested in behaviors that get misinterpreted by managers:


Table 9.2 Manager Perceptions Compared with Millennial Intrinsic Values2

Rather than get frustrated and complain about what Millennials are like, effective managers practice the competencies listed in Table 9.3. It is important to note that Millennials who manage express similar perceptions of Millennials and tend to be more critical of their peers.


Table 9.3 Perceived Orientations, Millennials’ Intrinsic Values, and Required Managerial Competencies3

To reiterate, the following competencies are good management in general but are exponentially important when managing people your age or younger. In Table 9.3, we match managerial competencies to perceived orientations and intrinsic values possessed by Millennials.

Managerial Leader Competencies Needed for Managing Millennials

We discovered nine managerial competencies essential to managing Millennials. The competencies are not only useful in reducing tension between managers and Millennials—they help to create an environment in which both can thrive.

Be Flexible

Focus more on what gets done than on how it gets done and give Millennials the leeway to work how they want when possible. When possible, give Millennials the freedom to accomplish work in their own way.

Create the Right Rewards

Acknowledge the contribution of Millennials. Managers can reward desired behavior with something as simple as verbal recognition. For larger successes, focus on bigger rewards, like a promotion, bonus, or more opportunities. Rewards don’t need to be overdone for every accomplishment, but Millennials should be recognized when things go well.

Put Their Imagination to Work

Keep Millennials’ minds (and hearts) engaged by using their well-developed imagination to solve problems and innovate. Millennials grew up learning to develop and use creativity. As a result, they are full of ideas they are eager to share. By giving them opportunities to use their creativity, organizations can benefit from Millennials’ imagination and energy.

Build a Relationship

This should be the easiest skill for a Millennial manager. Instead of treating Millennial employees as subordinates and expecting them to do what they are told (when they are told), connect relationally with them first. Many Millennials have been taught throughout their lives to focus first on their own needs and success. Managers who show interest and create personal connections with them will earn trust and have better working relationships.

Be Positive When Correcting

Avoid defensive reactions to direct criticism by reducing conflict, disarming Millennial employees, and focusing on areas of improvement as a positive. Prior to entering the workplace, many Millennials received praise simply for participating in activities. If correction was needed, it was softened to make it easier to hear. Often, this leads to defensiveness when faced with criticism that is not so soft. Managers can reduce conflict by taking extra time to focus on timely, frequent, and constructive feedback.

Don’t Take Things Personally

As discussed in Chapter 4, “Be True to You,” adapt to Millennials’ brief, frank communication style and don’t take offense. Keep the focus on them and their development. They are sure to challenge your authority in every way you can imagine. You have to self-differentiate and understand what they are doing and why they are doing it—and not react.

Show the Big Picture

Explain to Millennials the reasons for doing their work, why it matters, and what depends on them doing a good job. Share your expertise. Millennials can appear narrow-sighted due to a lack of experience or having worked in overstructured workplaces. It may be harder for them to see the big picture. Show them how other employees, departments, and downstream processes consume their output, and how those jobs depend on the quality of your employee’s work. Successful managers can help Millennials make the connection between everyday tasks and overall results.

Include the Details

Help your Millennial employees overcome the numerous distractions and “multitasking overload” with details they need about the work they are doing and the results you are expecting. Millennials can be very motivated and focused on tasks that interest them but may be easily distracted from tasks that don’t. When managers give specific details and explain the results they expect, Millennial employees are better at staying focused. Managers need to communicate clear information without assuming that they’ve been understood.

Make It Matter to Them

Understand what Millennials care about and help them tie what they are working on to something meaningful for them. Millennials care deeply about the things that interest them, but they can also seem uncaring about others’ concerns if they don’t understand the reasons for them. Successful managers connect their employees’ aspirations to organizational objectives.

Okay, we have opened a treasure chest of information. It is now time to get into how Millennials experience the workplace.

The Biggest Challenges Millennials Report Facing in the Workplace

Ron Weber, a workforce development guru, read the book Managing the Millennials and asked Chip to keynote at a corporate event in Chicago. When asked who the audience would be, Ron said they were all college new hires. After seconds of silence, Chip responded, “Let me get this right. You want me to stand up in front of 100-plus Millennials and tell them how managers perceive their generation?” Ron insisted that they would love it and that it would be highly beneficial for them to understand what they were about to face in the workplace. Ron was right. We are not sure how much they loved being told how they were perceived, but the knowledge was invaluable in helping them understand what they were experiencing and why. Here are a few comments from the event’s feedback survey:

“Even though the topic was about our generation, I feel like it was very eye-opening to hear the perceptions that older generations have toward us and to learn how I can work with my co-workers more effectively.”

“Very helpful and obviously related to me and my generation.”

“I liked learning how other generations view one another.”

“The program shed light on the assumptions some managers have about me based on my generation. The skills are very helpful.”

“It helped me to become more self-aware.”

“This will change how I approach my relationships with older co-workers.”

“I had never really thought about the differences between generations, and this really shed some light on it for me.”

Before we list the challenges Millennials encounter, it is important to lay out an explanation for why we believe the challenges exist.

Since perceptions have the potential to create reality, we were interested in how Millennials would experience entering the workforce. Our first study was deductive, meaning we started by observing a phenomenon (generational tension in the workplace) and then developed a theory (certain competencies can reduce generational tension). The second study was inductive in that we started with a theory (perceptions of Millennials can create barriers for them at work, but those barriers can be overcome with understanding and certain skills) and worked toward a phenomenon (Millennials understanding the challenges, using the skills, and thriving as a result). Below, we list each reported challenge with its definition in descending order by frequency of response (e.g., lack of experience was mentioned more than any other challenge).

Lack of Experience

Millennials are keenly aware that they lack work experience, and they know the limitations this places on them with respect to getting what they want.

Not Being Taken Seriously

Millennials consider themselves to be problem-solvers and innovators but get frustrated when their ideas are not entertained or are readily dismissed.

Not Getting Respect

Millennials have the experience of being treated differently just because of age. They talk about not being readily accepted into the culture of the company because they are young. They are made to feel that they do not belong in important work situations.

Being Perceived as “Entitled”

Older workers think that Millennials want everything to be handed to them without their having to earn it.

Lack of Patience

Millennials have high expectations about the speed of career development and have difficulty being patient when they are not progressing as fast as they think they should.

Getting Helpful Feedback

Millennials face frustration when feedback is nonexistent, untimely, or vague.

Understanding Expectations

Millennials are confused about what is expected and experience a mismatch of expectations.

Miscommunication with Older Workers

Millennials have difficulty when it comes to communicating with older workers. They have a different communication style from other generations due to technology.

Rigid Processes

Millennials’ overemphasis on processes inhibits working faster, smarter, and more effectively. They perceive existing processes to be rigid when they want to focus on the outcome.

Proving Value

Millennials want to prove their value to management. In particular, they wonder how assertive to be when it comes to asking for more responsibility or opportunity.

Understanding Corporate Culture

Millennials are uncertain about what is appropriate at work in terms of communication style, dress code, socializing, and unwritten rules. They often have trouble knowing when to be formal and when it is okay to be informal.

Challenges Created by Perception

Again, perceptions are not reality, but they can create reality when acted upon. The challenges Millennials face are very real. In Table 9.4, we draw a connection between managers’ perceptions and challenges Millennials face in the workplace.


Table 9.4 Comparison of Manager Perceptions of Millennials and Challenges Millennials Face in the Workplace4

If something is considered a roadblock or barrier, it is because it is delaying or keeping the person from something he or she desires. Pay close attention to what Millennials want. Table 9.5 compares the challenges Millennials face with what they want from the workplace.


Table 9.5 Challenges Compared with What Millennials Want5

Table 9.5 is a manager’s playbook. Not only does it give you insight into what hinders Millennial engagement and development, but it also gives you a list of motivating factors. Think about the challenges: You have influence over most of what they find challenging. You can take them seriously. You can respect them. You can give them feedback. You can recognize them. The great thing is that there are things both you and they can do! In Table 9.6, we have listed the challenges and the strategies Millennials can use to overcome roadblocks.


Table 9.6 Comparing Challenges with Strategies for Overcoming Challenges6

Consider the strategies in Table 9.6 as discussion topics for coaching, mentoring, and development with your Millennial employees. As an example, one of the frustrating things managers face is doing something nice for an employee and having the employee not acknowledge it. The employee’s lack of acknowledgment leads to the perception of entitlement.

An attorney friend of ours named Ken has a client whose company has grown significantly over the past five years. The company is led by a CEO in his early 30s. Ken is intrigued by the fact that there is not a person over 35 years old in the organization and that the CEO pays for everybody’s lunch every day. One day when Ken was in the office, he noticed a basket filled with Girl Scout cookies in the break room. The CEO had provided his daughter with prime product placement. The sign on the basket read: “Girl Scout Cookies $5. Thanks for your support!” Without hesitation, Ken reached into his pocket, pulled out a $5 bill, placed it in the envelope, and happily collected his Thin Mints. On a visit a week later, Ken noticed that the basket was still full of cookies. He thought about buying every box, but he started to think about how the CEO provided everybody’s lunch, and this was the perfect opportunity for the employees to reciprocate the generosity of the CEO. It bothered Ken so much he asked the CEO if he noticed that no one was buying the cookies. The CEO did notice and replied, “I am not mad, I am hurt.”

The best way to overcome the challenge of being perceived as entitled is to show gratitude and appreciation. One form of showing gratitude is reciprocation. When somebody does something nice for you, do something nice in return. We tell Ken’s story frequently in new-hire onboarding events and ask for feedback from the participants about why someone would walk by the cookies everyday on their way to a free lunch and decide not to buy a box. The responses have ranged from “We don’t carry cash” to “We don’t have kids so we don’t think about it.” The coaching is easy here: Stop at the ATM on your way to work, and you don’t have to have a kid to know that peoples’ kids are important to them.

Showing gratitude is a great place to lead by example. If your boss does something nice for you, bring in your employees and ask them to help you decide on how you will show your appreciation.

In the next section, we suggest more coaching strategies you can use to help your Millennial employees overcome barriers they face.

Coaching Millennials to Overcome Career Roadblocks

We began the chapter with a tip about giving advice: Start with the experience of your employee. The best place to start is with what she considers to be strengths or advantages she brings to her job. If she struggles with identifying strengths, have her take Tom Rath’s StrengthsFinder 2.0 inventory.7

Though many have espoused the merits of building on a strength over mastering a weakness, Marcus Buckingham and Don Clifton popularized the concept in their book Now, Discover Your Strengths.8 The concept is rooted in psychology. People respond positively to affirmation and bristle at criticism. In botany-speak, it is called heliotropism: Plants turn into the direction of the sun. This thinking has even influenced research methodology. The method is referred to as appreciative inquiry, and the principle is the same: As a sunflower turns toward the beaming rays from the sun, people turn toward the positive. Therefore, it is a good idea to begin with what is right or good; don’t ignore weaknesses but also don’t allow them to dominate the agenda. Beginning with a strength builds psychological stamina.

One of the interview questions we used in our study to identify challenges Millennials face was, “As a young worker, what advantage do you think you have in the workplace?” We asked the question because when it came to designing training, we wanted to identify where we could build psychological stamina. The answers we received are rank ordered in Table 9.7, according to frequency of response.


Table 9.7 Advantages Millennials Believe They Have in the Workplace Due to Their Age9

You may find the advantages list in Table 9.7 useful for your own development and a language for demonstrating value you bring to the organization. The strengths are a great place for starting a development conversation with your employees.

One strength that is not on the list is team-oriented—perhaps because Millennials do not perceive it to be a differentiator with respect to advantage. Maybe they don’t know it, but it is a differentiator, so maximize their ability to work in teams.

Managing Millennial Teams

If ever there was potential for creating hot groups, it is with Millennials. Jean Lipman-Blumen and Harold Leavitt define the hot group state of mind as “task obsessed and full of passion. It is always coupled with a distinctive way of behaving, a style that is intense, sharply focused, and full bore. It is contagious single-mindedness, that all-out dedication to doing something important.”10

Focus the team’s energy, passion, enthusiasm, intensity, style, and uniqueness on doing something special. Lipman-Blumen and Leavitt suggest that there are three types of hot group leaders. The first is an orchestra conductor; this leader is connected and hands-on day-to-day. The second is a patron; patrons are not hands-on or participative in team activities, but they champion the efforts of the team and keep them in good standing with the Mothership. The third is keepers of the flame; they build the conduit for ideas and projects to flow from one stage to another (between teams and varying projects).11 You probably play the role of conductor at this stage of your career.

Limpan-Blumen and Leavitt give insight into how to lead a hot group:12

Image Think and act people first, not task first.

Image Part of leadership is a dramatic art, so use your whole self, your persona.

Image Find ways to make an existing task more worthy.

Image When possible, keep your group in an underdog position.

Image Hot groups need deadlines and other routine markers.

Image Develop a sense of community.

Image Do your best to provide your group with generous time for breathing.

Image Don’t try to keep your group running full-throttle all the time.

Image Keep an eye out for burnout.

Image Expect periods of doubt, drought, depression, and dissension.

Image Manage meaning.

Millennials want to find meaning in their work, and they want to make a difference. They want to be listened to. They want you to understand that they fuse life and work. They want to have a say about how they do their work. They want to be rewarded. They want to be recognized. They want a good relationship with their boss. They want to learn. But most of all, they want to succeed.

The keys to helping Millennials succeed:

Image Value a relational approach.

Image Focus on career development.

Image Assure them of the relationship when things get difficult.

Image Give frequent and timely feedback.

Image Sponsor them for new opportunities.

Image Encourage their voice.

Image Help them understand the organization’s culture.

Image Work with them.

In the next chapter, we discuss managing Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, and members of the Silent generation.


1. Espinoza, C., Ukleja, M., & Rusch, C. (2010). Managing the Millennials. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

2. Espinoza, C., Ukleja, M., & Rusch, C. (2010). Managing the Millennials. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

3. Espinoza, C., Ukleja, M., & Rusch, C. (2010). Managing the Millennials. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

4. Espinoza, C. (2012). Millennial integration: Challenges millennials face in the workplace and what they can do about them. http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=antioch1354553875.

5. Espinoza, C. (2012). Millennial integration: Challenges millennials face in the workplace and what they can do about them. http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=antioch1354553875.

6. Espinoza, C. (2012). Millennial integration: Challenges millennials face in the workplace and what they can do about them. http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=antioch1354553875.

7. Rath, T. (2007). Strengthsfinder 2.0. New York: Gallup Press.

8. Buckingham, M., & Clifton, D. O. (2001). Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: Free Press.

9. Espinoza, C. (2012). Millennial integration: Challenges millennials face in the workplace and what they can do about them. http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=antioch1354553875.

10. Lipman-Blumen, J., & Leavitt, H. J. (1999). Hot Groups: Seeding Them, Feeding Them, and Using Them to Ignite Your Organization. New York: Oxford University Press.

11. Lipman-Blumen, J., & Leavitt, H. J. (1999). Hot Groups: Seeding Them, Feeding Them, and Using Them to Ignite Your Organization. New York: Oxford University Press.

12. Lipman-Blumen, J., & Leavitt, H. J. (1999). Hot Groups: Seeding Them, Feeding Them, and Using Them to Ignite Your Organization. New York: Oxford University Press.

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