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New Perspectives on Millennials in the Workplace

by Richard Lepsinger

posted in Business

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When it comes to what matters most in the workplace, are Millennials really that different from the rest of us?
Among leaders, human resource managers and researchers, there seems to be no clear consensus. Some researchers have concluded those born before 1980 learn differently and have distinct leadership development needs. Others contend there's no real evidence of that, aside from perception. Much has been written about how to engage Millennials at work; just as much, if not more, has been written about why Millennials are failing in the workplace and why employers shouldn't give them special treatment.
Whatever employers think of them, at least one thing is certain: they can't be ignored. In the next five years, Millennials will make up nearly half of the global workforce, and many of them will be in leadership roles, whether they are prepared to lead or not.
Here's a look at what some of the more recent research has found and what business leaders should take away from it.
The Findings: Leaders Have More In Common With Millennials Than They Think
Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, compared people of the same age at different points in time to determine whether Millennials are actually fundamentally different from those who were the same age in the 1960s and 70s. In her book, Generation Me, she notes some small shifts in how Millennials view work compared to previous generations, but the differences were less significant than common perceptions.
The Takeaway: The differences between generations have more to do with life stage than inherent characteristics. Older generations were just as likely to challenge authority figures as those in their 20s and early 30s today, perhaps even more so. Many were full of confidence and lacking in humility, two traits commonly attributed to Millennials today.
However, many have forgotten what it was like to be that age. They should take into consideration their own past behaviors and tendencies at that point in their lives when dealing with Millennials at work.
Professor Peter Capelli of the Wharton School has done significant research on this topic to support greater empathy in the workforce, challenging middle aged managers to recall their early 20s.
"You probably wanted to get out of the office in a hurry - you were interested in what was going on after work," Capelli said in a New York Times article. "You had these bursts of energy and great enthusiasm about something, but you also didn't have a lot of resilience."
Discipline where necessary and remember they were once that age too. When possible, use a misstep as a learning experience for a younger employee.
The Findings: Leaders Need to Bridge the Generation Gap
Generational gaps exist between all generations-each one has a perception of another that leads to differences in the workplace. Research has found that Baby Boomers believe Gen Xers lack discipline and focus and Millennials are easily distracted and lack commitment. Gen Xers believe Baby Boomers are resistant to change, sexist and insensitive and Millennials are arrogant. Millennials believe Baby Boomers are defensive and lack creativity and Gen Xers are poor problem-solvers. These perceptions aren't especially helpful to anyone.
The Takeaway: Be Aware of Generational Differences While Embracing Individual Traits
Despite these judgments, each generation brings positive qualities to the workplace. Each generation should recognize one another's positive traits and learn from them. In general, Baby Boomers tend to be more competitive, Gen Xers tend to be more independent-minded and Millennials are more likely to work well in teams.
While it's good to be aware of these tendencies as they can shape behaviors, avoid using them to stereotype team members. The best leaders are attuned to the strengths and weaknesses of their own team members. They strive to bring out the best qualities in everyone, rather than criticizing them for what they lack.
The Findings: Leaders Should Embrace the Changes Incoming Generations Bring
The truth is, times are changing. Technology has played a large role in workforce changes and is also an influencing factor in Millennial traits. But this is not specific to any one generation. Influences brought on by the times have impacted each generation - the Baby Boomer generation brought many changes to the workforce by witnessing important social movements like the Civil Rights and Women's movements, calling for a need for social and economic equality. Gen X likewise grew up with both parents in the workplace, and this generation began the pattern of women having children later to pursue careers. Their influences changed the way the workforce is, and the Millennial generation has now begun unleashing its impact on the way people work. Likewise, Gen Z will inevitably bring new changes as the first generation to not remember life before technology.
The Takeaway: Leaders must take into account the historical events that have shaped each generation. Bridging the gap is just the beginning - embracing these differences between generations must occur to maintain a cohesive workforce that currently comprises multiple generations. Developing leaders to find the best among these diverse mentalities will promote strong company morale. Millennials have much to learn, and Baby Boomers and Gen X have much advice and wisdom to pass on.
The Bottom Line
Millennials don't need special treatment, but employers do need to prepare them for leadership roles. Part of their preparation includes embracing the unique qualities they bring to the workforce, just like previous generations before them and the generations to come. Understanding Millennials and their thought processes can help turn a negative experience into a learning experience for both the Millennial and the employer.
This is crucial when preparing Millennials for a leadership role because once they become leaders, they will be using their life experience to guide their teams. Incorporating these experiences now will help ensure that your successors are taking the company in a direction you want to go.
About the Author: To learn how to prepare Millennials to take on leadership roles in your organization visit our website at
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