Managing Millennials continues to be a big pain point for many organizations’ leaders today.

Millennials, as defined by researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss, are the generation born from 1982 through 2004. For years now, many leaders of organizations who employ Millennials have been frustrated with many of their younger employees. Millennials don’t operate the same way in the workplace as previous generations. Thus, conflict between leaders of organizations and Millennials often exist when the expectations of the two groups are misaligned, and neither side is willing to compromise.

The problem is: Millennials can be hard to manage. Many in the older generations have labeled Millennials as “entitled,” “lazy,” “self-centered,” “addicted to their phones,” “addicted to social media,” and more. While many frustrations with Millennials are legitimate, criticism does not help the situation. Leaders need to face the challenge of finding and implementing an effective solution.

What follows is a three-step explanation of how to manage Millennials effectively. First, leaders need to recognize the ineffective solutions (six of which are covered here), understanding why they fail. Second, leaders must understand what the solution is, and why it works. This requires looking at the problem from a unique viewpoint—one that is absent from most discussions about Millennials. Third, leaders must consider how to implement the effective solution. While perspective is critical, understanding without action is fruitless.

A word of caution: leaders looking for quick fixes, tips, and shortcuts will remain frustrated. They do not exist. This three-step explanation is written for leaders who are serious about finding a solution that works and who are willing to dedicate the resources to implement it.


STEP 1: Recognize Ineffective Solutions

First, the easiest “solution” is not to hire Millennials. This conflict-avoidant option is ethically questionable (not to mention illegal due to age discrimination). Besides, refusing to hire Millennials is challenging, because Millennials have become the largest part of today’s workforce. Simply choosing not to hire Millennials is neither realistic nor advisable.

Second, another apparent solution is to disbelieve there is a problem. Deciding that there are no difficulties with managing Millennials is at best, naïve optimism and at worst, reality distortion. The difference in worldview between the generations is real, and disbelieving that it exists is to live in denial. Living in denial silences voices about the problem and pushes it underground, but it does not solve the problem. To maintain an effective workforce, leaders must address reality.

Third, another potential “solution” is to ignore the problem. Leaders who base their solution on the hope that the generation will “grow up” and the issue will resolve itself are taking a dangerous risk. As experienced leaders know, personnel problems get worse over time, not better, when left unaddressed.

Fourth, another “solution” is not to care about the problem. The thinking goes: “If Millennials are frustrated because they’re not getting what they want, too bad for them.” This middle way between the pitfalls of denial and ignorance has its own downside. While this approach works to a degree, it can backfire on an organization’s leaders who use it. Since this response is insensitive to the needs of real people who work for an organization, leaders will find it difficult to win loyalty and earn respect from their workforce. A lack of respect and loyalty translates into higher levels of disengagement, absenteeism, turnover, and in turn makes winning and keeping happy clients, customers or members that much harder.

Fifth, a similar “solution” is to try to change Millennials using rules. Leaders can impose policies and enforce strict rules to bend their Millennial employees to their will. While Millennials do appreciate clear expectations, attempting to force Millennials to fit a mold with rules and authoritarian policies is often ineffective. Put another way, this solution of telling Millennials how they ought to be only further reveals the issue many leaders experience when working with Millennials: they don’t work like previous generations. Millennials are often inflexible on certain points, such as with their expectations of work/life balance or reasonable compensation, however they choose to define those. Some will blame it on the culture in which they were raised, others say it was done to them by their parents. Whatever the reasons does not change the fact that the problem exists. Leaders can try to further entrench themselves in their positions and refuse to adapt to Millennials’ preferences. Millennial employees often read this position as their leaders not caring about them, or trying to use and exploit them. A position that “the policies are what they are, and Millennials must deal with them or leave” is going to generate a lot of resistance and result in frustration from Millennials, stripping them of the motivation to give their employer their best work.

Sixth, an ineffective solution is to give Millennials what the (non-Millennials) leaders think their Millennials employees want, not what Millennials need. Many attempts to address what Millennials want miss the point because they don’t address the real needs of Millennials. Organizations try to be “cool” when they bring in ping pong tables and beer taps. Millennials (sometimes) enjoy these nice-to-haves, but without their core needs being met, those nice-to-haves come across the wrong way: somewhere on the spectrum of tone-deaf to insulting. A man who puts in long hours to help his company hit their revenue target won’t say it was worth it when the company gives out baskets of ice cream party supplies instead of bonuses. A woman who doesn’t get paid the same as her male coworkers will not be impressed by a new PlayStation 4 in the game room.

Now that we’ve addressed ineffective solutions for the Millennial dilemma, we will next look at some helpful solutions to this very real problem in America’s workforce.

Stay tuned for parts two and three in this three-part series.