Management and Millennials

This summer, we were fortunate to have two interns working with us at Webster.

Ethan Ecker was one of these employees. Ethan proved himself to be a self-motivated individual with a genuine interest in the operation of small business. As part of our summer farewell, we’d like to publish his thoughts and research regarding his generation, and how it will be integrated into the US workforce. He has some strong opinions, with strong foundation behind them.

To be transparent: I’m not sure that we’ve done a great job of managing millennials (or anyone else) here at Webster. We have a tendency to focus on our craft rather than our business. Our days are filled with ambiguity. But these writings are a great reminder that there’s always room to grow and improve, and we’ll try to take them to heart.

– Joe Webster

Self-interested. Tech-addicted. Entitled. These are just a few terms used to describe millennials. While the accuracy of these descriptions for some millennials is debatable, the benefit of employers assuming them is not. As with any stereotype, there are many millennials who do not fit it. It used to be feasible to simply ignore them, but our new economic climate—with falling unemployment, increasing job openings, & rising number of millennials joining the work force—means ignoring them is a corporate death sentence.

The critical difference between companies that do and don’t adapt to millennials will not be in employee satisfaction, but in employee quality. Providing millennials what they want will make your company wanted by millennials.

Address the Millennial Achilles Heel

Employing millennials will bring you face-to-face with a weakness that is notably prevalent in their generation. From research published by Deloitte, tolerance for ambiguity is the number one trait that differs between millennials and non-millennials. Millennials dislike ambiguity; this becomes a problem when they are required to make decisions with incomplete information.

While their dislike of ambiguity is the millennial “Achilles heel”, it can be argued the mindset that contributes to this weakness also contributes to millennials’ strengths. Deloitte’s research also found—from their 2,958 participant sample—that 32% of millennials identified their work style as methodical & detail-oriented, compared to 24% of Gen Xers and 22% of boomers. The millennial “Achilles heel” is a result of them being required to work outside their preferred work style.

By understanding why they have this weakness, employers can better address it. A strategy to address this is to delegate tasks to new millennial hires that have minimal ambiguity. The effect is twofold, you are capitalizing on their strength (methodical work style) while avoiding them wasting their productivity on ambiguous tasks.

Of course, your new millennial hires cannot avoid ambiguity their entire career. Employers should treat developing tolerance for ambiguity as part of the training and development of their employees. This means delegating tasks that get progressively more ambiguous and using this gradual exposure to acclimate their new hires to something potentially uncomfortable for them. However, it is important that if the task given is ambiguous, you should clarify its purpose and its role in the big picture. This will give them a framework to base their decisions off of while completing the task, and give them a better sense of purpose & belonging.

Capitalize on Millennial Preference for Practicality & Action

Based on the data gathered by Deloitte, millennials most prefer a methodical & detail-oriented work style with an outcome-focused work style as the second-highest preference. The Deloitte authors further explain “Taken together, this data suggests millennials’ preference for practicality and action over talk and theory.” It comes as no surprise then that millennials join older professionals in their dislike for slow bureaucracy and, according to Susan P. Eisner, disliking it the most. As previous generations are more nonlinear & ambiguity-tolerant, millennials will not be as productive or motivated if managed like previous generations. To maximize the productivity and satisfaction of millennial employees, employers need to accommodate their work preferences.

The primary strategy for achieving this is engaging in direct, transparent, and actionable communication. This means, when possible, clearly conveying to them what their objectives are and how they can best go about achieving them. While this may seem restrictive, the very nature of our education system is based upon rewarding those who use the structured, methodical approach taught to them in class. For better or for worse, many millennials will be most productive when they have a clear path with a clear goal laid out for them.

Direct and transparent communication also extends to avoiding misleading statements. Although misleading statements are sometimes used to manipulate, they are also just as often used to avoid discussing certain issues. This can manifest in a simple “There is a clear path of career progression.”; yet they are never explained how to progress, or if they are explained the criteria, they notice various promotions that occur without fulfilling the stated criteria. This can result in lost trust and feelings of disassociation with the company.

It can be uncomfortable to tell candidates “networking with your peers and superiors is important for promotion.” While it may end up driving away some candidates, these are candidates that would have eventually realized this fact and left the company after you invested time and effort in hiring & training them. Simply put, you will get the best results being blunt, concise, and honest.

Encourage Professional Growth & Engagement with Millennials

One of the biggest challenges for employers today will be engaging the outcome-focused, ambiguity-averse millennials and keeping them committed to your company. It’s no secret that millennials are the least company-loyal generation. Gallup found 60% of millennials are open to a different job opportunity compared to 45% of non-millennials, and 50% of millennials plan to stay at their job one year from now compared to 60% of non-millennials. When confronted with this data, a common mistake is simply writing this off as “entitlement” or “narcissism”. Even assuming this is true, companies stand only to lose by treating stereotypes as immutable truths. A better reaction would be “How do we build loyalty from millennials?”

As I mentioned earlier, millennials hate ambiguity, but they thrive on direct, actionable communication. Companies who continue to manage their employees the same way they did 20 years ago are not addressing these millennial strengths and weaknesses, and they likely have millennial employees that feel no connection with their company. This can be best represented by a Gallup survey that found 55% of millennials are not engaged in their job, the highest percent in any generation, while only 29% are engaged, the lowest percent in any generation. Gallup points out that this represents indifference and that “indifferent and entitled are not synonymous.”

The solution is simple. Coach them. Employers should open themselves up to regular informal communication with their millennial employees. This serves as an opportunity for employees to gain feedback about their work, which is important in building trust and mutual respect. By continually providing feedback, you are encouraging a cycle of self-improvement while also providing reassurance that they are going in the right direction. Millennials still have a high respect for authority, and regular conversations with authority demonstrate that their managers appreciate them, which in turn leads to millennials feeling more fulfilled and engaged with their company. Remember that YOU, the manager, are seen as a source of validation and wisdom by millennials.

Align Millennial Goals with Company Goals

Dale Carnegie famously wrote “There is only one way… to get anybody to do anything. And that is by making the other person want to do it.” This quote is important in understanding that your company goals will be best achieved when they become your millennial employees’ goals. According to Robert Walters, millennials placed the lowest priority on the opportunity to engage in formal education while on the job. As millennials are the most likely to hold at least a bachelor’s degree, they value practical experience more than additional formal education. Robert Walters also found that 91% of millennials would prefer to receive formal feedback at least every six months, and 32% of millennials rate formal recognition of individual achievements as one of the most important ways to keep them engaged.

So what does this mean for companies? The importance millennials place on gaining practical experience forces us to re-evaluate the objectives of programs such as the annual performance review. As increasing productivity/effectiveness is necessary to justify regular pay raises, employers want their employees to improve year-to-year and use performance reviews to assess this. These reviews ultimately boil down to the reviewer determining whether or not the employee met company expectations that year. Ostensibly, the goal is to help employees improve in areas of weakness. However, in practice, it often just leaves the employee with superficial ratings that have little meaning to them.

The annual performance review should be dropped in favor of regular, short-term review meetings, ideally on a weekly or monthly basis. Additionally, the focus of these meetings should shift to goals not ratings, as ratings are meaningless to your employees (although ratings can have some value for internal record-keeping). This engages employers & employees in an ongoing dialogue focused on setting and achieving various short-term goals. Specific & measurable goals yield specific & measurable results, which accrues valuable practical experience for employees. By making millennial wants the same as company wants, employers can harness their employees’ personal drive and redirect it to achieve company aims.

Let Purpose Guide Your Business

In a 2017 Cone Communications CSR Study, it was found that 78% of Americans want companies to address important social justice issues. Many companies have already realized how important social purpose is to most Americans, especially millennials. However, many companies make empty promises or create one-off PR stunts and call that social purpose. While a drawback is the hypocrisy will become evident to consumers eventually (see Paul Polman & Unilever for an example of this), a more significant drawback is not capitalizing on this very effective business strategy.

As millennials tend to be socially conscious, it’s obvious that embracing a corporate social purpose is a good recruiting strategy. Of course, this brings with it growing pains as you attempt to transition your overall company and its veteran employees to this new purpose. It’s usually at this moment where the question will arise, “Is this really worth it?”

While I support the moral argument, morality isn’t what convinces shareholders, board members, or maybe even yourself. At the end of the day, you’re there to run a business and turn a profit. But corporate purpose has more than just moral relevance, as effectively weaving purpose into your corporate structure can have numerous positive effects. It can become a guiding beacon of decision-making for executives, a consistent source of inspiration for employees, and a defiant demonstration of humanity for consumers.

An example of a purpose-driven company is CVS. In 2014, CVS stopped selling tobacco products, citing how tobacco products are inconsistent with their purpose of leading people to better health. While there were some short-term losses, CVS quickly became seen as an honest thought leader in improving general health (40% more influencers saw them as a leader in 2015). Their actions against tobacco also paved the way for their eventual acquisition of Omnicare and Target pharmacies.

Building purpose into the very fabric of a business grows more & more necessary every day. Purpose will streamline your decision-making in company strategy; it gives you a framework to base your decisions against and results in saved time. It also allows you to attract like-minded employees who feel inspired by your purpose, especially millennials.

To connect with Ethan, please visit his profile on LinkedIn.