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Understanding the Millennial Mindset

It is all too common for members of older generations to deride today’s youth for having grown up cosseted by overprotective and always-there “helicopter parents.” Older people bemoan the fact that every young competitor today is handed a sports trophy at the end of the season, making the award meaningless and depriving both stellar and lesser athletes of one of the tough lessons of life. Others speak of the fact that bowling alleys now come with “bumpers”—meaning an entire generation has grown up not knowing what it sounds or feels like to bowl a gutter ball. Directors of school plays are instructed that everyone who shows up gets a part, regardless of commitment or talent.

Beyond these emotionally protective measures, many young people have been praised all their lives for the simplest accomplishments, whether for drawing with chalk on a sidewalk (“Such natural talent!”) or simply turning in a homework assignment on time. If they run into trouble at school or work, their parents rush to bail them out. College professors and deans have complained of parents calling to make excuses for a student’s late work or to argue for a better grade. We have even heard of parents calling human-resource departments to lobby for a better benefits package for their adult children.

One of the consequences of having grown up in the care of such hands-on adults is that this generation requires a lot more input and guidance than was the norm in workplaces a decade or more ago. In a 2008 survey, 65 percent of Millennial workers at Ernst & Young said being provided “detailed guidance in daily work” was moderately or extremely important, compared with 39 percent of Baby Boomers who said the same. Moreover, 85 percent of Millennial employees said their age-group peers want “frequent and candid performance feedback,” while only half of Boomers agreed. A few years ago, in response to this generational shift, Ernst & Young launched an online “Feedback Zone,” a place where employees can ask for and submit feedback. The firm also assigns younger workers a mentor. At IBM, managers are counseled in Millennial-appropriate behavior, such as using open-ended questions to prompt a dialogue and being specific about expectations.

Millennials want more than simple direction, however. They expect encouragement and inspiration, and want to feel they are being taken seriously and are making a difference within the company. (Funnily enough, encouragement and inspiration work well with other generations, too!) Organizations from Global Hyatt Corporation to P & G to IBM are encouraging cross-generational collaboration and learning by pairing older and younger workers on team projects and in traditional and reverse mentorships. (In a reverse mentorship, the younger employee mentors the older in areas such as technology adoption and cultural trends.)

IBM has found that the various age groups respond best to different methods of training and professional development. Whereas Baby Boomers prefer the traditional structure of a classroom and teacher, members of Generation X typically opt for online courses that are self-paced, while Millennials derive more benefit from social learning, through blogging and the like. The company offers training in a variety of formats to accommodate these divergent needs.

Beyond differences in how they like to work, Millennials also stand out in regard to why they work and what motivates them to put forth their best effort. This is a generation that values both personal achievement and communal success. They like to feel they are a part of some larger cause—whether that cause is meeting second-quarter projections or helping solve a social problem.

Also setting Millennials apart are their heightened expectations of how they will be received in business. Up to this point in their lives, these young men and women typically have not been asked to compromise on very much. They have come of age at a time when everything seems possible if one is sufficiently persistent. When they arrive at a new job, they have every expectation that their contributions will be valued and that they will automatically be accorded the respect of older colleagues. Should this prove not to be the case, some Millennials will choose to go elsewhere rather than stick it out until they earn their stripes. That can be a real drain on organizations that depend on a constant influx of the best and brightest to grow. The Conscious Corporation of tomorrow will put aside notions of how things “should” be or used to be and embrace what made the young workers worth hiring in the first place. They will learn that collaboration can reap rewards beyond the grasp of traditional command-and-control cultures. Finding just the right ways to engage employees and give them a sense of long-term ownership over the corporate brand will prove a vital competitive asset.

The workplace is changing. That much is apparent. And success will depend on how well an organization changes to meet the new realities. An article in The Economist warned of the fine line employers must walk between balancing company performance concerns and creating an environment in which young employees can do their best work. The author concluded:

Younger workers will have to accept that in difficult times decisions will be taken more crisply and workloads will increase. Their managers, meanwhile, will have to make an extra effort to keep [Millennials] engaged and motivated. Firms that cannot pull off this balancing act could see an exodus of young talent once the economy improves. That, to borrow from this generation’s textmessage shorthand, would be a huge WOMBAT: a waste of money, brains, and time.

Excerpted from Good for Business: The Rise of the Conscious Corporation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), by Andrew Benett (CEO, Arnold Worldwide), Ann O'Reilly (Knowledge Exchange Content Director, Euro RSCG Worldwide), Cavas Gobhai, and Greg Welch.

Image credits: Creative Commons/ (bowling); Veronica (employee)

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