Millennials – It’s Just Another Label

I work with many senior leaders, and I listen as they speak negatively about millennials. They talk about this age group in terms of entitlement or that they were spoiled with soccer trophies as kids. And that seems so unfair. Ever use the word “spry” or “geezer” to describe a young person? – no. We seem to have derogatory language when it comes to all age groups. We also have demeaning words for groups of people that aren’t us. These words are less than acceptable to describe race, ethnicity or religion. None of these statements are appropriate, and neither is language that masks age discrimination.

We know, I mean, we actually do know you cannot manage using labels. It is biased and unfair to the unique individual. As leaders we build trust by being empathetic to the person. Empathy begins with listening. Millennials want to be valued and to contribute like we all do. We need to listen more and roll our eyes less when discussing talented millennial individuals.

When senior leaders are frustrated with millennial talent and aren’t getting as much productivity from them, I ask two questions:

Question #1
Instead of asking what you are getting out of your employees, what inspiration, encouragement, and development energy are you putting into your people? You may hire great people, like a Ferrari is a great car, but with no premium gas, oil, or tires, it doesn’t work. Nothing in = nothing out. “They should just be glad they have a job!” or “Well, I give them a paycheck” are phrases that may have worked for you, your dad, and your grandfather, but today’s talent is living in an excessive knowledge, technological, and intellectual world, less a hard goods or manufacturing world. We need to treat people more like volunteers, and less like time-clock union laborers. We lead talent today, we don’t manage laborers. Almost every culture I work with is screaming for more praise and recognition.  We don’t get enough praise, because our senior leaders often didn’t get that or didn’t feel like they were allowed to ask for it – so we don’t get enough of what we all know could better new competencies and lead to better engagement and results.

Question #2
How much have you learned about the goals, motivations, aspirations, and values of your millennial talent? Many senior leaders bristle at this, as they never did that with their supervisor, and it seems to be “babying” the employee. Well of course it didn’t work for you, but you also never liked not being asked those questions – you just put up with it. You worked harder to get away from dealing with those feelings. Millennials see all that hard work pay off with drinking too much, smoking too much, weighing too much, and divorcing too much – why would they want to follow your recipe? Millennials may simply be saying and doing the things you were thinking, but didn’t dare ask. Your frustration may be that you didn’t say the things you thought or felt, and here comes a generation very comfortable telling you their work/life balance expectations.

I go back to clarifying– what is your objective? Is your goal to win the debate about which generational style is more  right? – I say no. Our job, measured, and implied as leaders is to get results through people. People who are engaged and productive to give discretionary effort, not just paycheck effort. Chick-Fil-A employees go through extensive politeness training to build customer loyalty. Ever go through a Chick-Fil-A drive-thru and thank them for taking your order? They will respond – my pleasure. Positive language. Why do they put up with the training to sound different from most of us, who  use negative language like “no problem” or “no worries”? It’s because they believe they are part of a brand with a mission and a purpose. Chick-Fil-A employees aren’t scooping fries they are serving kindness.

The key to millennial success is to build a purpose that is down with labels and up with empathy –  then the good times roll!


p.s. Organizations like Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Starbucks, Whole Foods, and Zappos are getting this message, and are the early winners in millennial loyalty, productivity, and results. The slower your organization is to embrace the new talent profile, the more your results will suffer.

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