My Experience Managing Millennials

Managing Millennials

Why should you care about the way millennials think and act in the workforce? Well, because they are increasingly your workforce, and knowing how best to manage these millennials means your business and your life will benefit. A better understanding of how millennials are different from previous generations in their work attitudes, behaviors and motivations leads to a more productive and efficient workforce. And given these millennials are now in many ways the backbone of our workforce, this is good for us Gen Xer managers.

Let me start with my own discovery of just how different these millennial workers were different from me: about 12 years ago when millennials were beginning to enter the workforce, I was a relatively new manager. It was about 6:00 pm and I walked over to find the analyst/consultant who was working with me on a project, but this person was nowhere to be found. When I asked this analyst the next morning why he had left when I was still there working away, the response was, “I had somewhere I had to be.” I wasn’t even sure how to respond given the unabashed confidence in which it was delivered and in a manner that was basically asking me why I would ask such a silly question. My point is not that millennials do not work hard or stay late when asked (many I work with are very dedicated and hardworking), but rather millennials do not operate under this sense of “I can’t leave if my boss is still here and working.” They don’t adhere, to the extent of previous generations, to the same hierarchal mentality.

Another realization of the differences between my generation and the average millennial was actually an encounter with my niece about five years ago. She was well into her first full-time post-college job. She was telling me what had happened at work that day, and the story went something like this, “We had some meeting today about our 401K. I didn’t go, and when my colleagues asked me why, I told them, ‘why do I need to go to a meeting about my retirement? I’m going to get all my Dad’s money.’” Again, my point is not to say all millennials are going to inherit enough money and have no need to be concerned about their retirement. (My niece is in a rather unique situation as an only child of an extremely frugal father who actually derives much satisfaction from knowing he has something to leave his daughter—despite her constantly trying to get him to spend it on himself.) My point is, many millennials have seen their parents highly focused on work and achieving a level of wealth, and, while they don’t not care about wealth, it is not typically their driving purpose.

There is a lot of research out there on how millennials are different. I purposefully, however, did not compile, digest, and summarize all the research. Instead, my assessment comes from “in-the-trenches” personal experience and observation. These experiences and ones like them have been shared and verified by my fellow Gen X colleague managers and many of the millennial employees we directly manage.


The bottom line…

Not only do millennials think about work differently than Gen Xers do, they are motivated differently, too.


How do millennials view work?

The reason millennials work is not necessarily for status or promotions, but rather to make an impact. Their job has to matter to them – for its impact on their future career progression or for impact on their community; or a combination of the two.


How do they work? They want

  • autonomy. They may need a bit more early-on handholding, but from there they expect to be given ownership.
  • to be known as a person. They desire coaching in the context of their own short- and long-term goals.
  • flexibility. They will work hard and long hours, but want to have control over their schedules.
  • clear expectations (both the spoken and unspoken kind). They are much more fixated on the need to know exactly how they are being measured and what you expect them to deliver.
  • to have context around why their performance matters. And then to be coached up to the task at hand.
  • positive feedback (they best respond to and are motivated by it). They seek positive affirmation as to what they are doing well and how they are contributing, and want it more than they express.
  • to engage by sharing, group sourcing, and being transparent with their work product no matter the stage of completion. They “put-it-all-out-there” for any to see and are less concerned about submitting a “work-in-progress” product to managers.
  • to develop relationships and friendships in the workplace. While this crosses all generations, the difference is millennials do not see position, age or level within the company as prohibitive in forming or restricting relationships (i.e., “why couldn’t I be best friends with the CEO?”).


What are the implications? Some dos and don’ts with your millennial workforce


  • “Dangle” benefits of long-term employment: promotions or promise of achieving a high rung in “climbing the ranks.” They don’t care. They are in this position for 2-5 years and have no “long-timer” mentality.
  • Micromanage them – it will lead them to be more nervous, less efficient/productive and it will kill their motivation (even though a few clearly need it: you will have to go about it differently – break down tasks into smaller steps that require more frequent touch-points and make them feel they own each step).
  • Expect them to respond to “negative management” – or anything resembling a “need to impress my boss or she’ll be upset.”
  • Use fear of reprisal as a way to manage them; they will simply register their unhappiness by moving on.



  • Help them see how their role in the task or project they are involved in is relevant to the overall objectives/task.
  • Effectively communicate what is expected from them and then effectively communicate how well they did or did not meet that expectation. Be positive.
  • Tell them the “why” (remember, they grew up with information at their fingertips, but are more savvy much earlier on in knowing everything out there isn’t true. It lends to their being somewhat more distrustful of taking what they are told at face value, though more accepting, in general, when they understand the “why”).
  • Give them frequent feedback with lots of encouragement, focusing on how your feedback is meant to help increase impact for themselves and for their teams.
  • Carve out clear and identifiable pieces of a project/task for which they can have total ownership, particularly if it is a large and complex project with multiple team members.
  • Help them understand how what you are asking them to do/learn will be relevant in their next project (or even their next job).
  • Allow them to feel comfortable collaborating on a “less-than-complete” work even though this will require more frequent check-ins as they work towards full completion.
  • Allow them flexibility in where, how and when they get the job done (as long as they get the job done).


We aren’t just managing Gen Xers any more….

To manage millennials you have to recognize they operate on different principles and assumptions than we Gen Xers do. This will require a sometimes significant change in management style to better suit their needs. If you do, you will be richly rewarded by the unique contributions they are generationally positioned to make. They will be the workforce you critically need to drive growth and success for both you and your business in this ever-faster evolving world of innovation and business. And if you don’t, you are likely to miss out on their full potential (and correspondingly, business growth potential) and you, and they alike, will continue to run into avoidable frustration.


And to you millennials

Learn to manage up – i.e., communicate to your managers these millennial differences and tell/teach them how you need to be managed to draw out your best work (this benefits you both). Be solution-oriented when having this conversation with your Gen X managers; give them suggestions or recommendations. We Gen-Xers are fairly open and willing to adapt (more so than our more authoritarian Boomer predecessors), and we find great satisfaction in becoming better managers (so your suggestions benefit us, too).

And for those millennials who can learn the valuable EQ skill of being able to venture outside yourself (a challenge at any age/generation) to seek to understand how your managers think and are motivated, you will be a step ahead of your peers. For you will then have the emotional intelligence to “get” that your managers actions and behaviors toward you may simply be driven by their own way of thinking (which is different from yours) and not driven by some malicious intent to make your life miserable. And with an open dialogue, you are more likely to get what you need in the way you want it. You will also have the ability, for when it’s your turn to figure out how the next generation is different from you, to know how best to go about making appropriate adaptations to better managing them.

Lawrence Cowan

Lawrence Cowan

Senior Partner and COO

Lawrence Cowan is a Partner at Cicero Group and leads Cicero’s Consumer Insights and Analytics Practice. Lawrence has spent the last decade building Cicero’s analytics practice where he has experience helping Fortune 500 firms solve real business challenges with data, including attrition, segmentation, sales prioritization, pricing, and customer satisfaction. He also leads the firm in predictive analytics and Big Data related engagements, applying Cicero’s deep expertise in strategy execution to ensure data delivers ROI.

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