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How Understanding Millennials Can Make You a Better Leader

Where are all those fearful, desperate, compliant workers when you need them? The good ole days of unquestioned leadership, enforced hierarchy and kingship are ending. Millennials are different. Leaders today face a gaping generational chasm which translates into a tough challenge – and a unique opportunity to become a better leader.

First of all, this Millennial generation is larger. Millennials (born1980—2000) are estimated at 92 million compared to their largest predecessor – 77 million Baby Boomers. In 2015 they will become our largest workforce demographic. They are a force to-be-reckoned-with for marketers and employers.

Second, they are survivors – a generation enduring unmatched relationship turbulence. Many experienced parental scarcity first-hand, born into a father-absent family or dealing with an evicted parent in the midst of an unrelenting divorce epidemic. Some were smothered by “helicopter” parents whose micromanaging is associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression. Many watched parents struggle with work relationships – jobs went away despite earnest effort and loyalty. Millennials were the original digital natives growing up with TVs, electronic games and devices serving as default baby-sitter and companion. Ambivalence toward relationships, hard-work, leaders and institutions should not surprise.

Today’s Millennials operate under a new covenant with their technology-God: ever-present connection with friends, answers to questions, the lowest price, the best job and even the right mate. Perfect strangers like Uber drivers, AirBNB lodging hosts and survey-respondents in this tech-enabled sharing-economy are their most trusted sources. While they may eschew religion in larger numbers than their parents, their faith and prayer-like devotion to their devices is uncompromising. And they believe (85 percent) their expertise in using technology makes them faster workers.

Third, these experiences drive a unique set of attitudes and behaviors – especially in their relationship with work. Their hopes and fears are different. They don’t fear being unemployed or even living at home with parents like earlier generations. Fifty percent would rather be unemployed than in a job they hate.

What they fear is being powerless, purpose-less and slaves to their work. The Harvard Business Review reports, when asked what kind of manager they want, the number one answer among North American Millennials was “empowers their employees.” What does empowerment mean? “Work-life” balance defined as “enough leisure time for my private life” (57%), followed by flexible work hours (45%). Their number one fear: “I will work too much.” They also want recognition and respect for employees (45%). More than 90 percent believe they deserve their dream job. They were told they are special and they believed it.

They internalized relational distrust which means they place high value on a company’s reputation. Seventy-six percent said they would not accept a job with a company with a bad reputation – even if unemployed, and 93 percent would leave their current employer for a company with a good reputation. They choose companies they respect and that respect them. Seventy percent see themselves eventually working independently versus part of a traditional organization.

Purpose matters. They volunteer more and expect to connect deeply with their work. As Senator Mark Warner explains, “Millennials don’t ask ‘where do you work,’ – they ask ‘what are you working on now.’”

Elders predating this Millennial tribe are often distrusted and viewed as out-of-touch. These digital natives likely view older wisdom as less relevant to today’s world – despite being closer to their parents and more likely to ask their advice.

Elders often return the favor by distrusting Millennials – not without consequence. Managers account for 70 percent of the variance around today’s disturbingly low employee engagement scores. While seasoned leaders often seek more freedom, independence and empowerment for themselves, they may resent workers doing likewise before they have “put in their time” – goose meet gander.

Leadership in the Millennial Age

The challenge of leading today’s more confident, independent and technically savvy workforce offers an opportunity to become a better leader. It starts with a shift in attitude. Leaders who feel victimized by assertive, questioning followers simply expand the generational chasm and self-inflict wounds to their own leadership. Leadership continues to bend away from slave-master or patriarch-offspring and toward more egalitarian relationships and self-managed teams.

While leaders might be tempted to ask Millennials to conform to the old ways, the best and most predictable course is for leaders to change their own behavior toward three relational outcomes:

Smartest team: Once upon a time leaders controlled access to information and power which made them uniquely positioned to have the answer. Today the explosion and democratization of information means there is so much relevant information that no single person or place monopolizes it and in this world the younger generation is much more agile. Today’s leader must facilitate getting the right information to the right places that leads to the right answer. Today’s leader does not need to be the smartest person in the room; rather, to lead the smartest, most-informed team.

Energized team: Today’s leader is challenged to produce an energized team from a workforce often running-on-empty. Floggings and firings have historically been the motivator de jour. Fear eventually becomes a leaky, deflating vessel. Today, over 50 percent of adults are single – the pressure of providing for family has changed. Healthcare and more generous unemployment payouts make job-loss less catastrophic and living with parents less stigmatized. Tech has even made unemployment less lonely – people stay connected.

Gallup/Deloitte found three keys to high-performance teams – today’s crown-jewel of organization success: a sense of purpose, commitment to excellence and people doing what they do best — their strengths. Successful leaders must be hyper-attentive communicators of purpose and thoughtful match-makers – finding and inviting excellence-oriented round-pegs into round holes.

Empowered team: Empowerment fuels workforce development. Successful empowerment combines letting go and enabling – focused learning and mentoring that develop those strengths Millennials trust to protect from the vagaries of corporate life. Enablement is the lubricant that then cultivates and humanizes the final piece – accountability. Millennials loathe egotistical “power-taking” leaders but are energized by power-making leadership that multiplies their power by informing, building strengths and redistributing control and successful accountability.

Leading in today’s Millennial age comes down to redistribution of leadershipwealth – communication, development and power.

Click here to read “How Understanding Millennials Can Make You a Better Leader,” by Robert Hall, Huffington Post.

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