Ten Practical Tips for Managing Millennials

Meredith Persily is CEO of Aspire@Work, a leadership development firm in Washington D.C. She teaches in American University’s Key Leadership Programs and formerly taught in the Kogod School of Business. She is also a proud member of Generation X.

By 2025, 75% of the U.S. workforce will consist of millennials, according to a survey by Deloitte. Although Gen X won’t be far behind, and Gen Z will comprise 27% of the 2025 workforce,  Gen Y—millennials—will be bearing the brunt of the workload for years to come. Managers must motivate and lead this generation to succeed.  Here are ten practical tips for reaching your millennial employees.

Tip 1: Tell them that “bad news” is inevitable.

If you are their first employer, you may be the first person to deliver what they consider to be “bad news” on their performance, such as constructive feedback or being turned down for a raise.   Explain during their workplace orientation why constructive feedback is often necessary and beneficial for professional development.  Share mistakes that you have made and how you recovered and learned from these events over your career.  Preparing them minimizes the shock and defensiveness when the time for feedback arrives, and allows for engagement in a productive conversation.

Tip 2: Find positive messages (they are accustomed to positive feedback).

Many Boomers and Gen X managers perceive their millennial employees as “needy” because they crave regular, positive feedback.  Managers frequently respond to this need with, “nobody gives me positive feedback” or “they need to grow up already.”  But, imagine having your own personal cheerleaders until your first job.  From parents to teachers and coaches, millennials have been cheered for their performance, regardless of the quality of it.

As their manager, you have a choice.  You can call them needy and ignore this craving, or optimize their performance by offering targeted feedback that produces good outcomes.  To succeed, follow the traditional management guidelines for positive feedback: regularity, specificity, and provide information that helps the employee improve his/her performance.

Lack of praise is a lost opportunity for greater employee engagement and could push your millennial to seek another employer.

Tip 3: Show your employees examples of great work.

Millennials were schooled by being “taught to the test”; they studied the test answers as they were learning the questions.   When my freshmen students asked to see a sample of an “A” paper, I reluctantly gave in.  To my surprise, they followed the template so diligently that many forgot to add their names to their papers, since I had removed the names from the sample.

On reflection, I had an epiphany about a related management challenge that has emerged in my coaching conversations in recent years: Think about millennials from the perspective of  always knowing what the test answers are going to be, and what happens in a job when you receive an assignment that doesn’t have a clear solution.  This level of uncertainty is new for many millennials.

We can argue that “giving the answer” thwarts innovation and creativity (legitimate concerns that many struggle with daily).  But, we can also use this to our advantage.  By giving millennials a taste of what the answer is, they work toward that end very effectively. So, look for examples; specifically define what you are looking for, and be as detailed as possible with assignments.

Tip 4: Maximize peer feedback—this is the most social generation.

Remember that your millennial employees are accustomed to receiving plenty of peer feedback— they are constantly “liking” their friend’s activities, accomplishments, photos, etc., and comment on each other’s daily mundane activities, often serving as vital members of each other’s support network and cheerleading squad.

Outsource the responsibility for providing constant feedback to their peers by having your employees read, review, and edit their colleagues’ work.  Create online spaces for them to support each other, hear about each other’s work challenges and successes, and problem-solve as a group.

Tip 5: Create reminder systems for deadlines (they are already used to digital ones).

Millennials are used to their parents and technology reminding them about what they need to do and where they need to be.  Most will join the workforce unaware of the workplace reminders used for completing assignments, attending meetings, and organizing their day.  As their manager, you need to introduce and require that they use these tools.

Many of my coaching clients would say,   “My young employees simply don’t meet deadlines. I don’t understand.  If my boss assigned me a project with a certain due date, I would complete it.  When I ask them why they don’t, they merely say they forgot or shrug their shoulders.”  I advised them to use my traditional performance management tools: Make agreements about deadlines, clearly communicate expectations, and hold them accountable.  But even this did not change their behaviors.

It was my college students who clued me in on the real problem. After a pep talk about deadlines and showing up for scheduled appointments, I asked them a question: How many of you keep a calendar (ical, Google calendar, paper, etc.)?  To my shock, only 10 percent raised their hands. I then realized that their reminders  are mostly text messages from friends asking, “where are you?” or third-party electronically generated reminders, and/or calls from their parents chiding them to turn in assignments and study for exams.

The question is not just “Can you complete this by Friday?” Instead, ask, “How are you going to remember to complete this by Friday?”  If they simply point to their head, introduce the ways you remember to get work done and encourage them to develop similar systems, especially as the number and complexity of their tasks grows.

The millennial workforce grew up with the internet and never had to search for days or weeks for an answer to a question. 


Tip 6: Tap into their hearts and passion.

If you work for a nonprofit or mission-based organization, you already hold an essential ingredient for engaging your millennial workforce. Most millennials care about the mission of their organizations and want to have a positive impact on their communities.

Daniel Goleman writes in his recent article, “Millennials: The Purpose Generation,” “63% of millennials—essentially workers under 35—said the primary purpose of businesses should be “improving society” instead of “generating profit.” A study from the Society for Human Resource Management tells us that 94% of millennials want to use their skills to benefit a cause and 57% wish that there were more company-wide service days.” As you better understand their motivations, find ways to leverage aspects of work that tap into these motivations.

Tip 7: What may feel like forced fun to you is living to them.

Birthday parties, team lunches, and happy hours may feel like an obligation, but millennials are the most social generation yet, and thrive on these team-building social activities.  Whether it’s a birthday, promotion, or holiday, this generation is accustomed to celebrating and being celebrated.  You need not be the one to plan these events yourself; Instead, appoint one of your Gen Yers as the lead social coordinator.  In the post-COVID world, when colleagues come together, bringing in these team-building activities will be essential for creating the connection to the organization that employers are seeking.

Tip 8: Don’t be fooled by their tech-savvy.  Assess and develop their tech skills. They will be quick learners.

Although millennials know how to text, tweet, and use social media, they sometimes don’t know how to build an Excel spreadsheet or create a PowerPoint presentation.  Fortunately, they are fast learners when it comes to technology, and their social media prowess can be extremely useful.  When you recruit employees, be specific about what technical expertise you need.  Once hired, assess their technology skills and invest in building those that they are lacking. Do not assign a technical project or presentation at the last minute and assume that your millennial will know what to do because of their generation alone. 

Tip 9: Don’t assume they know or will respect the rules of hierarchy.

Millennials communicate less formally than previous generations. When a student first sent me an email with an introduction of “Yo Prof,” I knew I had entered a new era.   Most are raised by parents who prioritize their children’s self-esteem over even their own, which gave their kids tremendous confidence in their opinions and their contributions.  Millennials have been known to take their ideas straight to the CEO’s office and go over their supervisors heads without hesitation.  

This tip is pretty simple: Do not assume that they will instinctively understand or respect the chain of command. Explain the rules to them as they apply to your organization. But, take care not to quash their boldness; sometimes  lessening of norms can benefit the organization. They have fresh eyes and unconventional behaviors that can shake up old ways of doing things by rote. Be open to the positive influence these interactions can bring to the organization.

Tip 10: Teach how to judge and discern information.

The millennial workforce grew up with the internet and never had to search for days or weeks for an answer to a question.  The downside of this access is that they are unable to distinguish a fact from an opinion, or an expert from an amateur.  You must teach employees how to judge information and not automatically accept the first answer as the best answer. However, be open  to new information sources such as social media, blogs, and wikis that they bring to the workplace. These outlets play a critical role in modern business and your millennials can teach you how to use them.

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