Winning the hearts and minds of millennials: 3 guiding principles for managers

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Millennials, also known as Generation Y, were born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. They began entering the workforce more than 15 years ago and are now taking it over. By 2020 they are anticipated to comprise nearly half of employees in developed, western economies.

An interesting phenomenon has developed among this group. In June 2015, the London School of Business and Finance conducted a nationwide survey and the results show that 66 percent of UK millennials are not happy in their current job, and 26 percent want to change careers in a year or even earlier.

Retention of millennial employees is proving challenging for many companies. As the saying goes: “People don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” Business leaders are expected to manage millennials for organisations to prosper. However, the alarming low engagement scores of millennials pose the question of whether managers are prepared to rise to this challenge.

To shed light onto this enigma, I will explore how the minds of Generation Y work and then draw on social psychological research for guidance on how to manage this group and ensure business success.

Into the minds of millennials

Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1979) and millennials are often differently wired. There are individual differences from one millennial to another, of course, but definitions of time, loyalty and success often differ between these two generations. And it is essential to meet them where they are. Below I outline key dimensions along which millennials tend to evaluate their workplace.

The need for speed

Millennials are often perceived as impatient, as possessing an underlying need for speed. This generation grew up experiencing instant gratification, thanks to technological advances: instantly ordering products online, watching movies on-demand, and enjoying a simplified dating life through a mere swipe on a mobile app.

Compare that to corporate life and climbing a corporate career ladder – it is clearly a march that beats to a different drum. Forming trusting workplace relationships and creating business impact takes time. Do the usual corporate promotion plans over five years adequately serve their need?

The need for feedback

Linked to their impatience is a constant need for feedback. An employee survey by Harvard Business Review found that millennial employees are looking for an ongoing stream of reviews and recognition.

Annual reviews, a trademark of corporate culture, do not cut it anymore. After all, they are used to receiving almost instant feedback via social media: a swift thumbs-up or down. Are managers working on forming trusting relationships with them to be able give quick feedback?

Seeking purpose

Apart from the need for speed and instant feedback, what do we know about their dreams and aspirations? Research conducted by Meister and Willyerd revealed that when asked what motivates them in the workplace, millennials responded with a desire to make an impact. The millennial generation has often – and wrongly – been mislabeled as entitled or over-confident. In fact, they are a generation seeking purpose – a socially conscious generation.

Learning new skills

They want to connect to a larger purpose, but they also want to learn new skills. Millennials want to be developed as leaders to equip them to make an impact. If this criterion is not met, they portray their infamous impatience and begin to look elsewhere where they feel valued and invested in at work.

Loyalty and respect that is earned

Because of shorter tenures, millennials have been portrayed as not showing enough loyalty and only being interested in themselves. But they do have respect for leaders and are loyal, it’s just that they do not respect authority just for the sake of it. Instead loyalty and respect must be earned. It seems it is no longer enough to hire the right people, now managers must also win them over.

3 guiding principles for managing millennials

Many organisations have responded to millennials’ quest for purpose by spending considerable time and money on formulating corporate values and mission statements. This ranges from Volvo’s mission to drive prosperity through transportation to Starbuck’s mission to inspire and nurture the human spirit.

But even the most original of these fade into the background during the day-to-day at work. I argue that managers ought to additionally rely on specific interpersonal principles to really engage millennials.

In the late 1980s, Reis and Shaver conducted seminal research into human interactions of close relationships. They put forward the Interpersonal Process Model of Intimacy, in which they identified three defining principles that form intimate relationships. I propose that if we apply these very same principles to a business context, we hold the key to their hearts.

While it may be easy to cross the line from a boss as an advocate to a boss as a friend, we need to keep in mind what millennials are really after: a boss to provide them with guidance, not social entertainment. Rely on the below three principles and you will curb impatience and positively impact the retention of millennials.

1. Care

The first key principle outlined by Reis and Shaver is caring: the feeling that the other cares about us. How can managers demonstrate care towards their millennial employees?  Sit down and talk.

Millennials want frequent pulse checks from their manager centered on feedback and on topics related to personal development. Do not wait for annual feedback reviews. By being intentional with them, you demonstrate that you care.

In addition, self-disclosure plays a key role in creating an environment of trust and care. When you sit down to talk, share your own challenges and learnings along your career path. As a result, you will build a stronger manager-employee relationship allowing for more immediate feedback loops.

2. Understanding

Reis and Shaver describe the next condition as understanding: the need to feel that the other person knows us. We want to feel that the other person knows our basic needs, beliefs and life circumstances. Afterall, we prefer to spend time with people who can validate our own self-concept, who know our best and worst idiosyncrasies.

To build an appropriate level of understanding at the manager-employee level, use regular check-ins to tap into their inner purpose. As a manager you may want to ask: “What do you enjoy doing in your job?” and “What makes you feel proud at work?” to shed light on what your direct report really values at work.

Make sure you enquire about their future aspirations, too. Invest time in understanding their views and discussing such topics. Develop their individualised career plans accordingly – it will pay off in time.

3. Validation

The final condition outlined by Reis and Shaver is validation: the communication of acceptance and acknowledgement. Validation does not mean agreeing or approving, but it does mean supporting.

There are many ways to do so in a business context. The most basic form of validation is listening or giving your attention in a non-judgmental way.

Most importantly, distance yourself from infrequent promotions with large increases, and move towards more frequent role extensions or stretch assignments with less increase.

This will make millennials feel validated along their career journey, and simultaneously provides them with the learning platform they seek. They will feel they are speeding along, while you buy yourself time as their manager.

Reis and Shaver concluded that couples are happier when they stick to these three defining principles. When these couples then compare themselves to other couples they are more satisfied and are indeed more likely to stay in the relationship.

So, the quicker managers apply these principles to managing millennials within a business context, the quicker they will address their needs and be rewarded with the retention of millennial employees and, ultimately, business success.

About Christiana Vonofakou

Christiana Vonofakou

Christiana Vonofakou, DPhil, is Head of Strategic HR Projects for the Industrial Business Unit at TE Connectivity. She was previously Head of Global Talent Acquisition and Inclusion & Diversity at TE Connectivity. Prior to joining TE Connectivity, she spent several years as an Executive Search Consultant with international search firms in London, focused on executive management placements into high growth technology and digital / ecommerce businesses.

She holds a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Experimental Psychology from the University of Oxford. Her DPhil thesis focused on inclusion and diversity, examining ways of reducing prejudice and discrimination towards minority groups. She is the author of various psychology articles, investigating the impact of contact on intergroup relations. She is bilingual in German and Greek and fluent in English.

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