Blame it on a Millennial!

The Transforming Modern Workplace

Millennials are lazy, selfish, entitled, outspoken and impatient

Millennials can pretty much be whatever you want them to be. What are you frustrated about at work?

Blame it on a Millennial.


I recently attended a panel on the topic of Millennials in the workplace. One of the points someone made was that every generation has a negative view of the up and coming generation.

I mean, have you been paying attention to Generation Alpha? Check out how entitled this little guy is:

We have a few more years to see how that plays out, but back to the point.

Focusing on the traits of a group of people makes for great complaints and headlines, but is a waste of time. Boomers may have a tendency for autocratic leadership, but I’ve met some aspiring autocrats among my peers just as I’ve worked for inspiring and collaborative X’ers and Boomers.

As a Millennial, we are a product of our time. We grew up comfortable with technology, questioning authority and skeptical of any employer telling us they are committed to us. We are also incredibly optimistic about the future: 80% of us think we will be better off than our parents.

Today’s world is being transformed by technology. It is changing the way we live, work and communicate. Millennials are the most comfortable with this transformation and optimistic about the future, but many are still frustrated at work. Almost 70% of employees report feeling disengaged in the workplace.

The working world is struggling to adapt. Technology has driven increased openness, transparency and flexibility in many parts of our lives, but many organizations have lagged behind. Startups and some bold organizations have become the testing grounds for what the organization of the future looks like, but it is not enough. I would not be surprised to see historically successful organizations fail — not due to a poor business model or strategy, but because they did not transform their organization to a new way of working.

Fortunately, we have a way forward:

Blame everything on millennials but use it as an opportunity to create a better working world for all

The youngest generation is always going to be in the position of being most comfortable with change. They also are the most convenient scapegoats for the uncertainty attached to adjusting to that change.

The imperative to change is now.

Millennials may not hold most leadership positions, but they are already the largest percentage of the working world as of 2015. As this trend continues, changes in the workforce will accelerate.

The future of companies depends on keeping this vital portion of the workforce engaged, but it is much more than that. I would urge instead that we take what we know about Millennials and use it as an excuse to create a more vibrant workforce that is more engaging (and profitable) for all generations (yes, including the alphas).

So what is the answer?

Free Food!

(Just kidding)

Everyone looks at google and thinks that free food and bouncy balls are the key to happy workers and an engaged workforce. Anyone who has worked there or read about their culture (Work Rules! or How Google Works are great) understand that everything they do starts with a deep respect for people and not sashimi and chocolate.

Fortunately Millennials are more similar to other generations than different. The things they want will benefit everyone: It all comes down to opportunity, respect and a voice.

I offer three examples of what this could look like in the modern organization. I don’t promise to have perfect answers, but I promise to continue to put my ideas out there.

Hopefully you can help me improve on them…

#1 OPPORTUNITY: Unlock “Intrepreneurs”

It’s no secret that companies are struggling with growth. McKinsey recently did a study and found that 90% of the companies that exceeded GPD growth rates happened to bein only four sectors: finance, high tech, healthcare and retail.

Companies are desperate for growth.

Luckily, companies need look no further than to their own people. Many people have the desire to start their own business — including 66% of Millennials. The fact is, many will not take the leap to starting their own company — but companies can harness that energy.

66% of Millennials ( and 39% of all employees ) have a desire to create their own business

Companies should think about two things:

First, creating environments where people from all levels of the organization can engage on new and powerful business ideas. It doesn’t have to be a full-blow startup accelerator in your company (though companies like GE and MasterCard are doing exactly this). Just involving a junior team member in a new strategy, new product or new service is a step in the right direction.

Second, soliciting ideas more actively throughout the organization. Managers and leaders at all levels need to ask “what do you think?” and have a safe space where people can offer their ideas — even if they are bad. The quickest way to kill motivation is to consistently shut down someones ideas or perspective. Toyota has built a culture around unlocking creative ideas from front line workers. It has a term, genchi genbutsu, meaning leaders ‘go and see.’ They go to the front line to understand problems, but also involve the front line workers in solving those problems and engaging them in continuous improvement. This is a model companies can borrow to unlock ideas, growth and opportunity in their companies.

2. RESPECT: Find good people and trust them

Find good people and trust them. That’s Warren Buffett’s philosophy. Of his 50+ portfolio companies he manages as part of Berkshire Hathaway, he only requires a monthly submission of financial results. He trusts them to take care of everything else. Google has a similar value. Laszlo Bock (their Chief People Officer) said the key to google’s success has been to “hire amazing people…” and “…give them more freedom than you’re comfortable with…”

This type of trust is still rare for obvious reasons — but it can be applied in many places, especially work-life balance.

I’ve been lucky to work for some great companies and great leaders that cared much more about the work I did rather than where or how I got it done. They supplied the tools (easy remote access, laptops etc…) and let us make the decisions. This sense of freedom was powerful and made me feel incredibly motivated and valued. The Gen X moms and dads I worked with seemed to deeply appreciate it as well.

This type of thing cannot be implemented as a policy (though a policy helps) — it is born out of culture, one that values performance over face-time and control. This type of culture can be built in two ways. First, you have to share stories and celebrate people who take advantage of the opportunities — not pretend they are an exception. Second, leaders and managers have to role model the change. No one will ever work remotely if they see their manager in the office 24/7.

Managers can also go a step further and ask their team questions like:

What is one thing we can do to make your work-life less stressful?

Or…

What is a small thing we can do that would have a big impact on your performance and success here?

Millennials are the least compensated, most indebted and have the least vacation of any employees in your company. Often the responses you will get will be simple — working remotely on a Friday to start a summer weekend, being able to take an early call from home in the morning or maybe just working from home so you can make some healthy meals for yourself. Who knows, but why not ask?

3. VOICE: Rethinking top-down

Everyone in your organization is thinking things that they do not feel safe sharing. This is true at google as much as it is anywhere else.

The way to overcome this is to re-think how information flows in your organization. Instead of top-down, you have to create the opportunity for information to flow bottom-up and peer to peer.

I’ve worked at companies where the CEO or office leader would have open Q&A and also allow anonymous questions in front of the entire office. This is incredibly powerful as it gives everyone in the organization the sense that they have a voice. Most people never submit a question, they just like knowing they can.

Another way to give people a voice is to encourage teaching. I’m sure there is a Millennial that could teach some of your executives how to use technology to make their lives and work more efficient. I’m also sure there is a senior executive that could teach your Millennials about financial planning or just sharing learnings from their career. These types of interactions can break down barriers and give people a voice.

Another area is feedback. This is a sensitive topic. When I first started at McKinsey early in my career I was blown away by how open the feedback culture was. Sure, some of the feedback may have been tough to stomach, but what made it genuine was there was a two way street for sharing feedback with more senior people. In fact, I had an experience in my first week where a senior consultant asked me for feedback on what he could improve on. The experience made me realize that everyone wanted to improve and having the culture to support that was powerful.

Giving people a voice is important. Otherwise, Millennials are likely to blindly follow your orders. Surprisingly, they are more likely to follow managers’ orders than their contemporaries:

41% of Millennials “agree” or “strongly agree” that employees should do what their manager tells them vs. 30% of Boomers and Xers (link)

This is not a good dynamic. Today’s business world is changing faster than ever and it requires dynamic teams who can constantly question the status quo and continually improve. Giving people a voice will help you move the needle.


Paul writes for fun about the future of work at Better Working World Project and also works as an independent consultant. If you enjoyed this, would you mind sharing with your friends?