How to Better Engage Millennials (and Why They Aren't Really so Different)

Millennials aren't so different. That isn't to say that they don't come from a different place than previous generations and that there aren't significant differences in their perspective, but when you get down to the core principles of what millennials want in the workplace, they want what any good employee would want from his or her employer.

"When I speak on the millennial topic, one of the points I always make is that when you look at the research regarding what millennials want in the workplace and what the pure characteristics are, you're talking about the same things everyone cares about," says Lauren Stiller Rikleen founder of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership as well as the Executive-in-Residence at Boston College's Center for Work & Family in the Carroll School of Management. Her upcoming book focuses on the Millennial Generation in the workplace.

Generational Differences

Millennials are essentially those that were born between 1980 and 2000. There is no question that they were raised in a different way than previous generations.

"When you look at the research, what emerges most critically is the comfort level with technology. It's the first generation to have fully grown up technology literate, practically from birth. That is at the root of a lot of what we are seeing in terms of distinct generational differences, specifically with how they communicate with each other and in the workplace," says Rikleen.

There are other differences as well. According to Rikleen, millennials were raised in very nurturing environments. The research shows they have closer relationships with their parents. "What people need to understand when you are talking about generational differences is that what you're really talking about are trends in demographics," says Rikleen.

Similarities With Previous Generations

Recent research conducted for the Kenan Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina by Ben Rosen, a Ph.D. and Professor of Organizational Behavior, demonstrates that there is more in common among generations than you might think.

In his study, he surveyed 5,400 respondents from different generations to study how the generations viewed each other, what they expected from their employers and how they defined ideal leaders. What might surprise you is that, according to Rosen's research, all four generations (i.e., Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials) share the same top work motivators of desire for continuous employment and opportunities for promotion. Rosen's research found that all four generations expected the following from their employers:

To work on challenging projects.

To receive competitive compensation.

To have opportunities for advancement and chances to learn and grow in their jobs.

To be fairly treated.

To maintain a work-life balance.

They also agreed on what it means to be a great leader.

Someone who leads by example.

Someone who is accessible.

Someone who helps others see how their roles contribute to the organization.

Someone who acts as a coach and mentor.

Someone who challenges others and holds others accountable.

Millennial Myths and Misconceptions

Many older generations label millennials as entitled, disloyal and narcissistic, but when you get to down to the roots of the issue, it becomes more evident that they are simply misunderstood.

Are they really as different as what is portrayed by the media or is it simply that generational friction is the norm? In either case, employers really need to get out of this mindset because baby boomers, according to Pew Research, are retiring at a rate of about 10,000 a day and the millennials of today will be the leaders of tomorrow.

With that in mind spoke with industry experts and researchers to help dispel myths and to find out what companies can do to close the generational gap and more successfully engage with their millennial employees and prospects.

Myth or Truth? Millennials Need Continuous Feedback

While this may be true, if you consider where millennials are coming from and what the end game is, it only makes sense, according to Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding and author of the upcoming book, "Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success."

"Millennials want continuous feedback. From an employer, this is seen as a 'need' but they should see it as individuals who are just starting out in their career; they are trying to grow and figure out what they can be doing better," says Schawbel. Offering more feedback where applicable can help them grow and bring them up to speed faster.

Myth or Truth? Millennials Are Disloyal

Is this really a surprise? This is a generation that has watched big business let them down, a la the Wall Street meltdown, golden parachutes for the top dogs, the removal of incentives like pensions, 401Ks, and other benefits. Many experts agree that the time of working for one employer for your entire career is over.

The average worker, according to BLS statisitcs, has been in his/her position for 4.4 years. If you look around at different research, millennials typically leave a job on average between 1.5 and two years.

Being distrustful of companies and corporations isn't something that millennials have the market cornered on either, Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers are seeing the same market conditions, but with age, perhaps, comes a bit of risk aversion.

Myth or Truth? Millennials Feel Entitled

Many bosses complain that Millennials have an attitude of entitlement, but Pamela Rucker, chairwoman of the CIO Executive Council's Executive Women in IT, argues that in her experience it's a misconception.

Rucker says that these are individuals who are relatively new to the workforce and don't understand what it takes to get to the next level. "You can't just show up, do your job and expect raises and promotions. It's really important for us to show them what true participation is and what true outcomes and deliveries look like, because they shouldn't be thinking that if they just share their ideas and attend meetings that they've done a good job. It's a misperception that their lazy; they just don't know what they need to deliver," says Rucker.

More than one expert explained that these individuals come into the workforce and they want to be impactful and advance quickly. "They [millennials] have aspirations and they want to achieve them real quick. There has to be clear communication on where we are today, where we are going to be tomorrow and what's expected for them to achieve. We make sure they understand that there is a process that needs to be met and accomplishments that you need to hit in order to ascend to that realm," says Jack Cullen, CEO of Modis, an IT staffing company.

Myth or Truth? Millennials Ask Too Many Questions

"Because of the use of social networking and growing up in world where everything is so transparent, it can be difficult [for millennials] to come into a workplace where communication is not as effective or where it's hard to understand what the organizational mission is," says Rikleen.

Again, it goes back in the environment millennials were raised in. From an early age they are taught to ask why. This could also stem from the fact that they come from a place where ideas and thoughts are shared via digital means in an almost instantaneous way. You can help millennials make the connection, Rucker says. "As a leader you have to be sure you are explaining what you're doing and why you're doing it so they can see the connection going on," says Rucker.

Building Better Engagement

We asked the experts to describe some of the best ways to strengthen relationships and decrease turnover rates among millennials. However, these are things that would make a better workplace for everyone.

Build a Career Succession Strategy: One way that will help attract more millennials and retain them longer is to create a career path within your organization that allows them to grow professionally and move up the ranks.

"They can be so self-absorbed that they don't understand what's going on in the company. I need to have their vision tied up in the company vision. I try to find a way to make where they want to go in five years a subset of where the company is in five years," says Rucker.

Rucker says that you have to understand that an employee isn't going to be with you forever. You have to be realistic about that fact. Sometimes when she talks about a career map with an employee the end result could lie outside her company and according to her that's OK.

What is important is that you show them what it takes to get to the next level and you illustrate all the paths available to get there. "What I try and do is lay out a career map that isn't necessarily hierarchical, but has several areas that can lead to the same salary and therefore the same perceived lifestyle for them [millenials]," says Rucker.

Create Internal Leadership Programs: This goes along with career succession or mapping. You can't expect employees to do it all on their own. If you want to develop great future leaders than you need to create programs that instruct and enlighten. "Leadership and development programs work really well in companies like Raytheon, GE and a lot of other companies, because they get millennials moving around to different groups and departments," says Schawbel.

Create Workplace Flexibility: No doubt about it, millennials want to work where and when they want. Experts agree they don't want to be tied to the office or to the 9-5 grind that so many of us are used to.

"Millennials feel like there is no direct correlation between the level of work or output they have and whether they are sitting in their office where you can see them. They feel like 'if I'm doing a great job here, I can do it from anywhere' and it's difficult to argue with that when you have so many remote teams and remote environments that are working," says Rucker.

The answer to this quandary is that employers need to come up with a different way of measuring their employee's success. Being in your assigned place every day doesn't make you a great employee; completing projects and hitting deadlines does. "Take the brilliance that they have and create base delivery models so that you can tie their productivity into meeting deadlines and deliverables as opposed to have them sitting in a seat every day," says Rucker.

Use Mentoring/Reverse Mentoring or Pairing: There is a lot of value in creating a mentoring or reverse mentoring program within your company. If you find a way to do it properly you'll get innovation and expertise combined with out-of-the-box thinking.

According to the experts, if you can create a mentoring situation where the millennials are treated as valuable and you treat the veterans as valuable, then you can create an idea lab or think tank environment where issues are discussed more broadly. According to Rucker, employers who approach it from this perspective will wind up on top.

"There is an incredible amount of value in employees who have been there five or 10 years. The thinking is perhaps they are sedentary, but in reality they know the business very well , they know who your customers and competition are, the dirt on your industry and what it takes to be successful. When you pair them with a millennial who understands the new culture, the new technology and new ways of thinking it can be impactful. They could explain that something the company is about to spend millions on can be done with a $2 app," says Rucker.

"We use what is referred to as pairing, where we have millennials share their values and experiences with older generations or veteran employees, many whom have a 'this is how it is and this is how it's done' mindset. We have found tremendous value in the give-and-take that comes from that. It builds up a certain amount of respect among the generations," says Cullen.

Are Employer's Hesitant to Hire Millennials?

While there are people out there who may choose an older employee over a millennial, Schawbel says the current state of the economy is to blame. "It's the marketplace and less about generational stereotypes. Employers are looking for the person who can do the job the best and add the most value. It's less about generations and more about outcomes. Can you deliver and fit in the corporate culture?

Hiring Millennials

"They are misunderstood and are very talented. The secret is to find out how to manage them," says Cullen. Spend the time to make sure that there is a cultural fit as well as a skills fit. According to Cullen, you really have to have a more open engagement and dialogue with millennials to get inside what their hot buttons are and what's going to help them be their most productive.

"Anytime a company is thinking about hiring a millennial, [you] should spend at least half a day that demonstrates a day in the life of this job. Bring that millennial into your environment and seat them with a person in that role. That way there will be no confusion about what that role is," says Cullen.

Building a Millennial Workforce

Millennials clearly approach the workplace from a different perspective. This is a product of the environment they were raised in and an immersion in tech that started from birth. With that said, other generations have had similar sentiments about the generation that come after them.

The key may be to stop looking at the generational differences and start focusing more on our commonalities. We all want a good boss who listens and understands. We all want more flexible hours, better pay and a company that we are proud to work for.

This story, "How to Better Engage Millennials (and Why They Aren't Really so Different)" was originally published by CIO.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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