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Don't Act Your Age, Act Like a Millennial: 5 Lessons to Leverage

What do millennials really want at work? The same things you do. They just have different, sometimes, better ways to get them.

by Rob Fazio, Ph.D. /
A multi-generational team of millennials and Gen Xers discuss a project. Getty Images, stock

Millennials get bad a rap, especially when it comes to their workplace reps. Gen X and Baby Boomer managers tend to judge millennials harshly for their work style and expectations and are often left wondering: “What do millennials really want at work anyway?” According to a 2014 study by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, they want the same things we all do. In fact, it turns out there are minimal differences between millennials and other generations when it comes to career aspirations.

IBM researchers looked at 1,784 employees from 12 countries and six industries. The survey revealed that as many millennials want to make a positive impact at their workplace as their Generation X and Baby Boomer counterparts. Researchers also concluded that while millennials' “digital proficiency” sets them apart, they share similar attitudes with other generations around career, goals, recognition, engagement and leadership styles.

By 2020, millennials will make up half of the American workforce so it's time to give up the blame game and start working together. We can and should leverage the unique gifts this group brings to the workplace and ride the wave known as “millennial momentum” to business success. Here are five lessons you can learn from your millennial colleagues:

1. Pay people with what motivates them

Millennials appreciate diversity and understand that people aren't one size fits all. And like many workers today, they aren’t always motivated by bags of money. The work of Harvard University psychologist David McClelland on social motives taught us that we all have innate needs that drive us in our work lives. I use the four motivators of motivational currency: performance, people, power, and purpose. Successful motivational leadership is about being able to recognize primary motivations, read what motivates your team and lead with intention so you can motivate others quickly and efficiently.

2. Don’t be afraid to disrupt things

Disruption is the new innovation, and millennials have the confidence to ask the right questions that lead to innovative products and approaches. They're persistent and they won’t simply stop at the first solution to a problem. But it's important to remember that disruption isn't about “blowing things up” just for the sake of it. It's about being open to change. A smart approach I learned from a millennial leader is to allow talent to pitch an innovative idea and then try it out internally to see if it has potential. The point is to not stifle the flow of ideas because that only stifles progress.

3. Use technology wisely, but not exclusively

Contrary to popular opinion, millennials aren’t digital addicts who want to share everything on Snapchat and Instagram. You may be surprised to learn that while they’re great at navigating the digital landscape, they actually prefer face-to-face communication so sit down and have a conversation. That said, millennials know how to find information and create a buzz, so start seeking, whether it’s an app you've never heard of or business strategy you haven't used before.

4. Don't worry, be happy (it's healthy!)

I know I am wired to worry and so are many of the Fortune 500 executives I work with. What I've learned is that millennials are better at connecting with people than problems. I recently talked to a hedge fund manager who has over $20 billion in assets under management, and yet he's still worried about making money. At some point there is a diminishing return on our worry investment. The lesson from millennials: Be driven when you need to be and enjoy the ride when and while you can.

5. Make excellence an expectation

Instead of seeing millennials as entitled, look at it this way: Millennials believe they are destined for excellence. That desire for success, combined with guidance from you on how to navigate workplace challenges, is a stellar business strategy.

While it’s effective to give clear feedback to someone who isn’t pulling his weight, it is not a smart business practice to vilify an entire generation. Labels limit innovation so lose them. Get out of the habit of talking about what millennials don’t do. Instead, find ways to build on what millennials naturally do. Engage in conversations about what their signature strengths are, what motivates them and the ideas they have. The return on your investment will pay dividends for yourself, your people and your business.

Dr. Rob Fazio is an executive adviser to Fortune 500 and emerging companies. He is the Managing Partner at OnPoint Advising, Inc., and the author of Simple is the New Smart.

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