How can your business adapt to millennials?

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Chris Atkinson

Chris Atkinson of Strategic Leaders talks to Business Leader Magazine. 

Recently a video by author and speaker Simon Sinek went viral on social media achieving over 56 million views on Facebook alone. The hot topic was about millennials (people born after 1984) in the workplace.

It seems that this new generation thinks and operates very differently to those generations before; in Sinek’s words “they confound leadership”.

This is profoundly important discussion because by 2025, millennials will make up 75% of the global workforce and the current operating models in organisations simply don’t work for the mindset of this generation.

Let me give you an analogy: if we see organisations like an engine, an engine needs fuel. The traditional fuel that powered these ‘engines’ was either incentive and reward or punishment and fear.

The features of this engine design were bonus schemes, promotions, KPI based management, disciplinary processes and even fear/aggression. What we’re seeing is that the millennial workforce is running on a different kind of fuel so the ‘engine’ of the organisation must now change in response.

The workforce we have today is fuelled by wanting to do meaningful work, wanting to feel trusted and wanting to feel respected. Therefore, unless the organisation can adapt itself to be powered by this different fuel we will increasingly see the core engines of our organisation’s failing, through cultural collapse.

But it’s perhaps not the dire picture some media outlets would have you believe. This group of people have characteristics we desperately need in our workplaces right now. They include:

  • High levels of education and skill, we have never had more highly educated and skilled people entering the workforce.
  • Flexible thinking, this generation are not comfortable just following the rules, they have agile flexible thinking as standard.
  • Passionate and energetic, this group of people want to care about their work. They are far less content with just doing ‘a job’ for money than any generation that came before.

These are all qualities organisations have traditionally invested heavily to develop through training courses or initiatives and yet they come as standard with our new workforce. However, as ever in life there is a price to be paid and we must learn to be flexible to accommodate the needs of millennials. So what can leaders do to better engage this group of people?

Care about the person more than the function – for years organisations have equated people to a ‘resource’ as evidenced by the term Human Resources or the fact that many HR functions fall under the responsibility of the Finance Director because ‘people are a cost’. Simply put millennials will not tolerate being treated as machinery, they call out “I am an individual! Know me, understand me, value me!” Managers must learn to individualise and adapt their style for each person. The organisation in turn needs to show it cares about its employees as much, or more than, it’s KPIs.

Give clearly defined outcomes but not step by step instructions – this generation do not want to be mindless automatons, they want to learn and discover their own ways of working. Allow them the freedom to find their own ways to deliver the results you need.

Always connect to greater purpose – there is nothing more disheartening for a millennial than to feel what they are doing is pointless. They are mentally wired to connect to a sense of purpose, what contribution am I making to the world? Why does what I do matter? You must provide multiples ways for them to really feel the impact of their work and celebrate their contribution.

I’m largely dismayed by the recent negative narrative about millennials in the workplace. Our ways of structuring organisations (traditional hierarchies) and operating (reward and punishment) have largely remained unchanged since the industrial revolution. I believe many of us who have worked in a large corporate hierarchy of command and control would fight to keep this model. The new generation are challenging us to find better ways of working and I firmly believe these ways will be better FOR ALL OF US.

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