Managing millennials – don’t do it.

Managing millennials – don’t do it.

I’ve heard it more than a few times. Rhetoric around managing millennials, complaints about work ethic, dedication, value differences, and on, and on.

There’s one major rule on managing millennials and the rest of the article suggests ways to make that work well.


Don’t manage them. 

It’s not a good spend of your time or theirs. Management is so 2005 and this is 2020. Get with the program and move on from what you knew and how you came up. 

How do I know? I think more like a millennial than Generation X and I’m one of those people who was born near the grey space between the two. I’ve never cared for being managed nor have I cared for managing others. I’ve always found traditional management constrictive and ultimately a measure of form over function.

So… wait… how do you manage millennials? 

In the words of En Vogue, “Free your mind and the rest will follow.”

First, learn to lead through mentorship instead of management. This means you are going to spend time on each direct report. The best division of labor is to spend a third of your time on some of the traditional management models, a third on professional development, and a third on mentoring the person. This is different from what you would normally do in management where it’s a lot about the rules, reaching the bars, and achievement versus complacency. 

How do you make this work?

Make sure you set a construct where there are rules no one can break and bars everyone has to meet. This is as close to the traditional model you’ll get. Very carefully consider how you frame this and how to be transparent in as many things as possible. This means avoiding authoritative behavior or the constant focus on walking the talk. Instead, concern yourself with the consistency and fairness of your actions, making sure everyone is given equal rules that are formed around respect, and making sure the team knows the why behind what’s happening. Say there’s a big project coming. Why are you doing it? What are the goals? What happens if the project succeeds and what does the team need to do to reach success?

Talk about this stuff up front, not after the fact. Leadership can’t be a small group in a little room, it’s about everyone collaborating together and the leaders giving everyone what they need to drive change.

Next, spend a lot of time on company culture and your group’s culture. A company I used to work for called this Connect to Purpose. This is an effort to collect moments where what you do as a group connects to the motivation behind the job. Why are you doing what you are doing? If you are in healthcare, for instance, it’s about service to the community, patients, and their families… so shouldn’t you be collecting your stories to talk about everyone’s role in the good being done so everyone feels the impact of their work?

Once you’ve got your construct for success, your rules, and your Connect to Purpose moments, start recognizing people for their achievement. 

This one is tricky. A lot of people have cited the millennial need for recognition. It’s not entirely correct nor is it entirely incorrect. Accept that everyone needs recognition and then learn enough about your staff to know how they want their recognition delivered. Once you know, then do so when appropriate. With some people, focusing on the positive naturally raises the negative. I’ve seen it happen. 

Just be careful, if you are constantly beating the drum of how great Shelly is and never mention Darl, then you will create an issue – especially if they are both doing exceptional work. 

Balance is key.

Finally, we come to two related but different topics – work / life balance and growth opportunities.

People today want a construct where they have freedom to do their job with minimal rules so they can achieve. They want to be able to have defined goals that, when reached, lead to recognition AND career growth (either where they are or somewhere else) without losing their personal time.

The reality, or irony, is that a total work / life separation is less possible the higher you grow, which is why I’ve got the two linked. 

I do my best to make sure people understand that as they grow, those lines blur and in some organizations no longer exist. I find that setting expectation means a lot. It tells people what they are getting into and helps them understand that their goals will change their reality. Talking people through what a logical career evolution looks like is a good step to make early on. Some people have extensive drive and ambition, try to support that but be sure to celebrate it if they grow elsewhere and leave. People seeing you support others whether they go or stay will drive loyalty and desire to grow with you, and it may inspire some to work with you again in the future. 

The most important thing is to be available as a leader and make meaningful connections with others. People matter, so put your investment there and the rest should work out.