Managing Millennials: What's Really Different

A working student in my evening MBA program approached me to talk about a work situation that was driving her crazy.

She gave me the gory behind-the-scenes view: a few apathetic employees were fully taking advantage of a system that had let them get away with ridiculous performance for too long. She was a new supervisor and knew what was right. Apparently her instincts had been reinforced in our class that night. But the situation felt difficult to reverse. She shrugged and said, “It’s probably because they’re millennials.”

I laughed, “Uh…you do realize YOU are a millennial. right?”

“Yeah, yeah,” she acknowledged, “but I’m a DIFFERENT kind of millennial.”

Of course she is. Every millennial is.

Whatever your generation, I’d bet money you don’t feel like you fully fit the stereotype.

Don’t let generational labels and stereotypes screw up your ability to build a winning team. 

What Every Employee Needs

All this talk of the millennial situation is aggravating the perceived “generation gap.” It happens every time a new crop of growing leaders gains traction.  The truth is, the problem she was describing was not generational. It was a hard-core, poster-child example of weak expectations, exacerbated by low-reinforcement and no consequences.

I had those same slippery characters working for me when I was 26. Oh sure their names and contexts were different, but I recognized the story. Back then, I was a gen-Xer trying to manage gen-Xers (I even had to take a course on managing gen-Xers before I could move into management). I recall telling the trainer I was a DIFFERENT kind of gen-Xer.

Yes, we need to understand and value the millennial generation. They bring insights and values we may not understand.

For example, I was all ears when my informal millennial coaches (employees in my organization at the front lines who I specifically put on my informal board of directors to tell me the truth) told me how to become more trusted and accessible to the front lines: Stop wearing a suit and heels to the call centers–it was too intimidating; bring my humor to the next corporate video; and for God’s sake watch some TV every now and then so I can chime in on the break room small talk. It worked. Sure there are few things you can do to be more relevant to the masses.

But the truth is, it didn’t work because they were millennial. It worked because it was a way to meet people where they are. That wisdom has worked for centuries.

Figure out the easy things you can change to connect better at a broad scale, but never forget that teams are built of unique human beings. 

The next time you’re faced with a “millennial” problem, I encourage you to resist the label and dig deeper. What’s really going on at the individual level? Do they get the big picture, so they have the skills to do the job, are they confident and competent…? You get the picture.

Are you struggling with a difficult employee engagement scene? Please call me at 443 750-1249 for a free consultation.

Posted in Confident Humility, Employee Engagement & Energy and tagged , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Great wisdom. And your point about watching TV & just socializing makes a big difference in growing these connections. I don’t think of “generations” and X or Y or Millennial or whatever. I think in terms of You are not Me. And visa-versa. What do we do with this dilemma? I think the most important thing for thriving companies to do is to be forward thinking. Too much of the same age group (young or old) is a formula for that company to miss a huge chunk of the market. Get different age groups in leadership positions. In a progressive start-up, hire older workers who can connect with that audience & who have experiences of that generation. In an established “greying” company, hire and move young employees into leadership positions – or as you mentioned in last week’s post, MENTOR the newer worker with more established workers – they can teach each other a thing or two & that’s a win for each employee and the company!

    • David, thanks so much for sharing your real, practical insights. Spot on.

  2. I’ve written about the “perceived” differences of gen gaps. In my opinion, they’re way over blown.

    Each person is an individual with a unique set of values, aspirations, etc. Everyone would like a happy professional career that inspires them, a place where their talents are acknowledged and leveraged, etc. etc.

    Gen X, Y, Millennials, or Traditionals…Everyone needs to improve their communication skills. If there’s a gap it’s communication and being able to do it very well.

    • Steve, I so agree. I keep running across research that says that communication skills is the number one skill lacking in candidates and employees. In fact, there’s a recent push to include more of this in MBA programs (not traditionally included at most schools). In fact, I’m being brought in to make this a big part of University of Maryland’s MBA orientation this year.

  3. Hi Karen
    I think you sum the issue up very nicely when you say a team is made up of unique individuals. It is too easy to put people in boxes according to preconceived ideas and stereotypes, rather go in with an open mind and listen to them. Then culture, or age, doesn’t matter
    Thank you for another great, thought-provoking article

    • AnneMarie, Thanks so much! Any kind of stereotype is dangerous.

  4. I am consistently hearing the same line about the Millennials and I think that people of all generations work differently in the workplace. Having said that, I also believe that the Millennials as a generation have taught us a lot about work/life balance and technology. I try to both learn from all the generations and share my institutional wisdom too.

    Thanks Karin for starting this insightful dialogue! Terrific post!

    • I agree Terri, I see this very clearly in the non profit world. Millenials are much much more interested in making a difference, and pursuing a passion than us boomers.

    • Bill and Terri, It’s interesting in my masters level course of people studying accounting (I’m their one leadership course), when they introduced themselves almost all of them said something like, “we’ll I’m an accountant, but my big dream is to ___________ insert nonprofit cause here AND I’m already doing work in that arena with _________.

    • Terri, Thank you! That’s why I’ve got a gaggle of millennials working with me on my online learning platform 😉 You should see the cool stuff they’re coming up with…

  5. Karin,

    It was great to work with you at VZM years back. It was evident to me you were destined to bigger things and your contributions show.

    As a millennial going through the struggles, I completely agree with your points. I think there is a definite misalignment with management styles and expectations. I have seen a lot of training programs that are either rushed through with too much content to cover, or ones that are just lacking in quality content.

    From my experience, it is a powerful tool for a manager or supervisor to be able to empathize with their employees on a personal and professional level and is key to recognizing how to motivate each individual. Too often I have hear supervisors refer to their employees as some sort of number versus an actual person (I.E. “I have a 7 year employee, a 4 year employee and so on”)

    More often times than not millennials are motivated by money or power/status and highly impatient to get them. I think a lot of that comes from getting out of college in a terrible point in the economy with a sense of entitlement for those who have degrees. We like to be challenged and rewarded for them, but there is still an apparent gap in philosophy where as we feel we should be paid for the job the employer wants us to do and doing the job first to get paid later. I do believe there is a happy medium with this paradigm that would mutually benefit both parties and yield the result the employer is looking for, which seems to be producing a lot more turnover for these larger companies whose pay scales are dated.

    Overall, there are a lot of obstacles that still need to be over come to align everyone so we can all benefit and grow together.

    • Jake, so awesome to see you here! Thanks for reconnecting. It’s very useful to hear your perspective on this important angle. I’d love to hear from other millenials on their perspective as well. Who else wants to weigh in?

  6. You always hit on the BEST topics Karin!

    I am always hearing how men need to be treated different than women, how older workers need to be treated different from younger ones, how millennials need to be treated differently than other generations…on and on it goes.

    I am tired of it! People are people—simple as that! Treat everyone with respect and strive to communicate with them, and that is about the only piece of advice any leader needs. Chances are good that if a leader cannot communicate with a millennial they cannot communicate with others as well—or at least, they don’t want to.

    It all comes down to respecting people who are different than you…whether it’s the color of your skin, your sex, or your age.

    • LaRae, Amen. And you always come up with great comments 😉 Namaste.

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