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The secret to making Millennials happy at work isn't about Millennials

Yes, this is yet another article about millennials. But don’t worry; it’s certainly not about blaming millennials for “killing” yet another industry or spending too much money on avocado toast.

I’m a millennial who owns a company that’s employed thousands of millennials over the last decade. I’m also an author, and I speak often about engaging the next generation at work. One of the most common questions leaders ask me is, “How do you keep millennials engaged and fulfilled in your business?”

My response is always the same: I’ve never once looked at my business and asked myself, “How do I make this work with millennials?”

You see, I own a cleaning company. The primary job of those on my team is to scrub toilets, dust, and vacuum. So the question I’ve actually asked myself—many times—is, “How do I get any human being excited about cleaning?”

Too often we focus on what makes us different. We read that millennials are this way and they need that. We hear all Gen-Z’ers require these things, while Baby Boomers require those things. We think Gen X needs this and that to thrive. Every time a new generation enters the workforce, it seems employers fear they’ll need to totally switch up their strategies to engage them. That because these people were raised in different times with different backgrounds, they’ll need different things from the organization that employs them.

What we forget is that no matter when we’re born, we’re always going to have a lot in common. We’re all human, and—regardless of age or demographic—all humans want to feel valued. We want to feel significant. We want to be empowered, to feel trusted and safe. We want to be inspired by the work we do and feel as if we are contributing to something that matters. And we want to know that our organizations care about us—that we aren’t seen as machines or numbers.

The “secret” to helping different generations thrive in the workplace isn’t a secret at all: We don’t need to treat any one generation differently than the next. We just need to treat people like, well ... people.

The fact is, each and every one of us has a unique background and life experience that has made us who we are today. And the challenge that every leader and organization has and will always have is to bring a group of unique people together and help them reach their potential. No matter what generation they belong to.

So it’s not just about engaging millennials at work. The discussion needs to be much broader. According to Gallup, worldwide employee engagement is on the rise, but it’s still at just 34%. That means 66% of people are either not engaged or actively disengaged at work. That’s 66% of people, not millennials. What we’ve got is an everyone problem—not one that’s confined to a single generation.

If we want to get better at engaging people, we can’t just focus on one demographic at a time. And we don’t have to. The things millennials struggle with are the same things the generations before and after them struggle with. To show you what I mean, let’s dive deeper into some of the common stereotypes we hear and read about millennials:

Millennials can’t handle critical feedback.

This is one of my favorites. Is it really just millennials who struggle with accepting constructive criticism? Is it true that we’ve never experienced defensiveness from someone who isn’t a millennial?

No! And there’s a good reason for that.

“Feedback creates a strong threat response in the brain,” says David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work. It’s human nature—not millennial nature—to get defensive when someone tries to tell us we’ve done something wrong. Some people even suggest not giving it (or at least disguising it as something else), though I strongly disagree. Feedback is the very thing that builds trust and helps people see how they can grow and improve.

With feedback, delivery is everything. I’ve worked with many leaders who have told me their people can’t take feedback, but nine times out of 10, I find that the problem isn’t the people; it’s that the leaders don’t know how to give feedback.

Here’s what happens: When someone is good at their job, they get promoted to a leadership position. They might get trained on how to do their specific role, but rarely are they trained on how to lead people. That’s how we end up with leaders who don’t know how to give feedback in a way that is productive and makes people feel cared for. And if we aren’t good at it, we’ll be met with defensiveness. When we are good at it, we’ll likely build trust and inspire behavior change.

My favorite feedback method ever comes from my friends at Barry-Wehmiller, a capital equipment and engineering company based in St. Louis that has one of the best cultures you’ll find. It’s called the FBI, and it is one of the most profound things I’ve learned in my leadership journey.

The idea behind it is that if you want to give truly effective feedback to someone, you need to include three things: the way you feel, the specific behavior that made you feel that way, and the impact that behavior had—whether it impacted you, the company, your relationship with that person, etc. I believe it’s also important to remind the person that you care about them and are giving them feedback so that they can grow. The more you can remind someone that your feedback is coming from a caring place, the better outcome you’ll have.

Here’s an example of an FBI you could give if someone was late to a meeting: “I really care about your growth and development here, which is why I have to tell you that I feel let down this morning because you were 30 minutes late to our meeting. The impact is now I don’t know if I can rely on you. Can you help me understand how this happened?”

In my company, every single person learns about the FBI and how to use it. Teaching this format ensures we all have the same feedback language and, therefore, much less reason to get defensive when we’re on the receiving end. It also gives our team members a tool to use when they are upset or frustrated.

Millennials need constant recognition.

Yes, it’s true that people my age got awards for simply showing up to things when we were kids. More than one person I know has a dusty soccer trophy sitting on a shelf that they got regardless of whether they even kicked the ball once all season. A lot of millennials are used to getting praise, but let’s be real: Who doesn’t want to feel seen and valued?

According to the WorkHuman Research Institute, frequent recognition and validation is one of the factors in helping people—not just millennials—find meaning in their work. We need to know that “what we do day-to-day matters in the context of the greater goals of the organization.” The institution’s 2017 survey also says that 45% of people have not been recognized at work in six months or more. Forty-five percent! Sixteen percent said they have never been recognized at all.

This is not a millennial problem. Again, it’s a leadership problem.

But just like leaders aren’t taught how to give critical feedback, we aren’t taught how to recognize people or why it’s so important that we do. Tossing someone a quick “Good job” and “Great work!” every now and then isn’t enough. It might make people feel good in the moment, but without going into the specifics, the good feeling doesn’t last.

I believe the purpose of recognition is to help people identify their unique contributions and to inspire behavior that you want to see again. I think it’s less about needing to be recognized constantly and more about being recognized in a meaningful way.

The magic of the FBI is that it works for recognition too. Imagine how powerful it would be if your leader came up to you after a meeting and said, “I felt so proud when you spoke up about that problem today. The impact is that because you spoke up, we were able to get to a solution that will help so many other people.” Feels good, right? And guess who’s speaking up again?

Recognition is a “deposit” in our emotional bank accounts. If you’ve read Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” you’ve heard that term before. Emotional bank accounts are, simply put, one's relationship with another. Just like a regular bank account, you have to make withdrawals—like giving critical feedback, for example—and you want to make sure there will be a positive balance left in the account afterward. One way to do that is to recognize people in a meaningful way. When the balance is positive, people are more likely to feel fulfilled in the relationship. When the balance is negative, that’s usually when people start looking for another job.

Millennials are glued to their devices.

Oh boy, we’ve hit the motherload.

Step into any conference room, and you’ll see people of all ages pretending to pay attention while texting and answering emails. Millennials may have adapted more quickly to personal tech, but they’re certainly not the only ones to blame for using it too much. And younger generations are taking notice: According to a recent study published in the New York Times, 4 in 10 teenagers think their parents are addicted to their devices. Ouch.

We’re all guilty of paying more attention to our phones or laptops than the people in front of us at times. We email more than we talk. We answer texts and catch up on our work before meetings start instead of catching up with each other. We’ve allowed technology to replace human interaction in so many instances.

All of us—not just millennials—need to put some boundaries around technology. In my company, we use Slack for quick, to-the-point communication like, “What time is the meeting?” But giving feedback? Sharing ideas? Needing time off? Those are all face-to-face conversations. If for some reason we can’t meet in person, we hop on a video or phone call. We never hide behind a text or an email.

We also teach our team members the importance of being present. Each person we hire goes through an exercise where they have to share a meaningful story from their life while their partner ignores them and plays on their phone the whole time. It is devastating—for both people. The speaker feels invisible, and the person playing on their phone feels guilty. It’s a powerful lesson. We set the expectation that we should be present in conversations and meetings, and a big part of that is teaching people the impact of how it feels when you let technology get in the way.

People show up when they know someone cares about them. So when your leader is paying more attention to their device than paying attention to you, what kind of message is that sending?

Millennials want flexible scheduling and the ability to work remote.

Again, I think this is a broader issue. It’s not really about flexible scheduling and working remote, it’s about recognizing that people have priorities outside of work. It’s about feeling that the organization you work for cares about those priorities—things like your family, your health, and your life—as much as it cares about its own. What would our world look like if that were the case?

Let’s look at scheduling, for example. In my company, we primarily employ students who are juggling a full course load with a part-time job. Because we recognize that school is a priority to them, we ask our team members to tell us the hours they can commit to working. And we expect that during those hours, they’ll give us their all. And they do.

Now let’s look at the opposite scenario: We tell them what hours they are working. We choose not to be flexible around their class schedules. Now they resent their work. They see it as taking them away from the largest priority in their life up to this point so far—their education. Do you think they’re giving us their best? Do you think they’re engaged? No way.

It can be hard to wrap our heads around how we can make this work in a traditional workplace. But I do the same with my executive team. We all work 40+ hours a week, but we don’t have required hours. Sure, we all have to be at critical meetings. But aside from that, does it really matter how we get there if the work gets done? One watches her niece on Tuesdays. One takes every Friday off to work on a personal creative project. What if we let people live their lives the way they want to and had work work with their lives instead of against them?

Maybe flexible hours and working remote isn’t doable for everyone. But what if we offered more flexibility than we currently offer in other areas? The point is that the organization should work to understand what each person needs and do its very best to give what it can and meet people halfway. It’s the least a company can do for how hard and how much people work. And if we want people to be highly engaged at work, we have to earn that.

Our focus on engaging millennials in the workplace is misguided. It’s not about millennials; it’s about humans. We all need to feel valued, recognized, trusted, and cared for. If we can meet those needs, we’ll have no trouble attracting and retaining members of all generations.

Hope this helps.

Big hugs,